Perhaps Newcastle United’s inglorious weekend started on Saturday evening. Michael Owen confessed he “couldn’t wait to retire” for the last few years of his career. It was a period that incorporated his unhappy spell at St James’ Park, culminating in relegation in 2009.
Irrelevant history? Not at Newcastle. Fifteen Premier League clubs made their record signing in either 2017 or 2018. Owen joined Newcastle in 2005. He remains their biggest ever buy. Chelsea have made 34 costlier signings.
All of which offers some context to Sunday’s events at St James’ Park. Newcastle lined up in a 5-4-1 formation, had 19 per cent of possession and set out to frustrate. All of which, according to some, betrayed the traditions of the club.
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The cliche of Newcastle as inveterate attackers has persisted long after the reality has faded. A combination of reputation and size of club means it becomes more controversial when Newcastle go on the defensive than when some of their peers do, especially as when Rafa Benitez goes negative, he does it comprehensively.
This was not the first time. There were echoes of December’s meeting with Manchester City when Nicolas Otamendi completed more passes than Newcastle’s outfield players.
This time, Jorginho managed more than the whole Newcastle side, goalkeeper Martin Dubravka included. In each game, one team played with the ball and one without, concentrating on shape and being hard to break down. In each, Newcastle only lost by one goal.
That, of course, is not the point of football. And yet Benitez has a calculating streak. There is something logical in his approach. While, to his huge credit, Newcastle ultimately finished 10th last season, they appeared in a relegation battle. It could have come down to goal difference. Over 180 minutes, the eventual champions only beat them 4-1, whereas demoted Swansea City went down 9-0.
On Sunday, a policy of safety in numbers, in a division that could come down to goal difference, was still more logical considering the backdrop.
Benitez was without the ineligible Kenedy and the injured Jonjo Shelvey and Jamaal Lascelles, shorn of three of his best players after making the division’s biggest profit in the summer transfer market.
Newcastle were in the black to the tune of £28.7 million (Dh135.4m). In contrast and among their immediate rivals, Brighton & Hove Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers had a net spend of around £60m each while West Ham United and Fulham’s overall expenditure came to about £100m apiece.
If it is tempting to wonder what a manager of Benitez’s calibre could do with such a budget, it is also probable a meticulous planner could, in private, answer precisely where he would have devoted those sums and who he would have signed.
Instead, he has made more slender resources go a long way. In an inflated market for goalkeepers, Dubravka looks a bargain at £4m. A release clause meant Fabian Schar’s £3m price was artificially low. Ki Sung-yueng, a free transfer, and the borrowed Kenedy are two of the finer footballers acquired without a transfer fee.
Benitez has got value for money, which should appeal to his employer and nemesis, Mike Ashley. If part of Newcastle’s problem is that more is expected of them because of their historic appeal to the romantics, the paradox is that the club is run by duelling factions of pragmatists.
On the field, Benitez’s tactics can be unashamedly pragmatic. Off it, so are Ashley’s. He has left grandstanding statements to others. They may invest colossal sums to move up a handful of places in the standings but it is participation in the Premier League that is lucrative; not the difference in prize money between coming 10th and 15th.
It is a calculated risk that only backfires if Newcastle end up 18th or lower. It is a short-termist move, given that Benitez is in the final year of his contract.
It is an ethos devoid of ambition, flying in the face of how most want to see clubs run, but it could seem a financial masterstroke if and when Benitez steers Newcastle to safety. Owen, a spectacular failure of a signing whose arrival predated the Ashley era, may seem a justification of the owner’s cost-conscious approach.
But, shorn of such expensive attackers, the chances are that Benitez will opt for further damage-limitation exercises against more lavishly-resourced sides.
The Spaniard may be blamed for more exercises in negativity but the numbers underline how everything at Newcastle comes back to Ashley.