Rafa's Newcastle revolution continues to gather momentum

THE MAGPIES ARE FLYING HIGH

It's been another eventful season up in the north east with Rafa Benitez yet again doing a magnificent job with extremely limited resources. His relationship with controversial owner Mike Ashley is always a hot topic, with Rafa being given little-to-no-funds to build his squad. But despite this Benitez continues to keep the Magpies competitive and in the Premier League, which is very impressive. Last year a late run of good form saw them sneak into the top half, finishing tenth, which was their highest league finish since the 2011/12 season when they finished 5th under Alan Pardew.

A lack of investment in the playing staff and continued rumours about the future of the clubs ownership clouded this campaign too, with many tipping United to really struggle. Avoiding relegation would've been the remit coming into the season and despite that still being a possibility with them 6 points above the drop zone, recent form will have them setting their sights further up the table.

After 28 games Newcastle are 5 points away from 10th position which West Ham currently occupy - a side they take on live on Sky Sports on Saturday - which gives them a real opportunity to cut the gap and stake their claim for a spot in the top half. Breaking in there would be a real achievement for Rafa and Ashley would be delighted, as it would result in more prize money along with making the club a much more attractive proposition for potential new owners.

NEWCASTLE UNITED IN FINE FORM

It took Newcastle United's season a fair bit of time to get started, with the Magpies going 10 Premier League games before picking up their first victory of the campaign and since they've recorded back-to-back victories on just three occasions, but they have improved on last term. United have two extra points than they did after 28 games in the 18/19 campaign, along with conceding four fewer goals. Scoring is a long standing problem which has never really been rectified at the top level since the days of Demba Ba and then Loic Remy, but defensively they look much more assured.

In recent weeks Rafa has switched things up and reverted to a back three, utilising wing backs as opposed to a flat back four and the aftermath have been very impressive. Four wins from their last six games in the Premier League along with just one defeat makes excellent reading, with them keeping clean sheets in 3 of those. It's not a system that Rafa has become known for during his time in English football but the results and more so performances are speaking for themselves.

Rafa Benitez
Rafa's switch in system has proven to be something of a revelation

DeAndre Yedlin and Matt Ritchie (usually a winger) have been tasked with the role of being the all important wing backs and they've both performed admirably, providing some fantastic service for the attacking players whilst doing their bit defensively. Goals are an issue but in Ayoze Perez and Salomon Rondon they have two able frontmen who are a real handful on their day, providing a good mix of technical ability and physicality.

When lacking an out-and-out prolific striker it's imperative that they get two strikers out on the pitch and the pair they have are a real handful. They've played an important part in the clubs superb run of four successive home victories which is a fantastic achievement, especially when you consider one of those wins came over Champions Manchester City. What Rafa's achieving on a minuscule budget is seriously impressive and it really makes you think what he could achieve if he received the financial backing he deserves.

NEW ST. JAMES' PARK HEROES

Football is a team effort and that's certainly the case at Newcastle, Rafa has built a fantastic work ethic during his time at St. James' Park which has really got the supporters on board but the last couple of months have seen some new heroes break out. Sean Longstaff is a man who was only known to Newcastle and Blackpool fans at the end of 2017/18 campaign, following a successful loan spell at the League One club. But whats followed for the Geordie born midfielder is the stuff that dreams are made of, with Benitez identifying his talent and throwing him into the first team - which looks an absolute masterstroke.

The 21 year-old has started the Magpies last 7 league games but he looks like he has hundreds of appearances under his belt, putting in mature performances far beyond his years. Longstaff adds passion, determination and most importantly quality to the Newcastle United engine room which has seen him become a vital cog in this 3-5-2 system and in turn, making him one of the first names on the teamsheet. It's been a whirlwind start to the year for him and his efforts have been rewarded with a nomination for the Premier League Player of the Month award which is richly deserved - a real fans favourite and the more minutes he gets under his belt the more he's going to improve.

Sean Longstaff
Every fan loves a home-grown player and Newcastle-born Sean Longstaff has become a real favourite at St. James' Park

Alongside the tenacious performances of Longstaff we've also seen a rather low-key summer acquisition flourish, Switzerland international Fabian Schar. Acquired from Deportivo for just £3.5m last summer, the 27 year-old forms part of an impressive defensive trio alongside skipper Jamaal Lascelles and Florian Lejeune. Composed on the ball and solid off it, Schar has played a big part in Newcastle's run of 4 straight wins at St. James' Park and 9 clean sheets overall for the campaign. Goalkeeper Martin Dubravka is well protected by the back three and it's reflected in the total of shut outs, with just Kepa Arrizabalaga, Ederson and Alisson Becker registering more - excellent stuff for a side in 13th position.

And finally, someone who's only made 2 starts but looks a real class act. The Magpies finally broke their long standing transfer record to land MLS superstar Miguel Almiron from Atlanta United on deadline day, a move thats been in the pipeline for a while but the fans still would've been surprised to see Ashley splash out £20m for Rafa to land his man. Almiron adds some much needed speed, creativity and goals to the Newcastle attack and he's already looking right at home in the Premier League. At the age of 25 he's approaching the peak years of his career and if he can build on his positive start he could become something of a cult hero.

SELL UP OR INVEST

From the outside looking in you'd expect Newcastle fans to be really excited for whats to come in the future and that definitely is the case, but not to the extent that you'd expect. The ongoing ownership issues and protests against Mike Ashley need to resolved as soon as possible if Magpies are to go to the next level and really push on in the Premier League. He hasn't hidden his desire to offload the club should the right buyer come along and match his asking price, but the longer this drags on the bigger the risk that they could lose their prized asset - Rafa Benitez.

St. James Park
The animosity between Newcastle's passionate fanbase and owner Mike Ashley looks beyond repair, but St. James' Park continues to sell out every week

What Rafa has achieved in the north east deserves a tremendous amount of credit and if the club can back him in the transfer market there's no reason why they can't climb up the table. He's grown visibly frustrated at the lack of investment and continues to work wonders with what he's got, but in the summer it's really time for Ashley to back his man or speed up his departure. Shelling out a club record fee for Almiron was certainly a step in the right direction but the non-existent relationship between himself and the fans still exists, so it's going to take a lot of big money arrivals to resolve this issue.

Rafa needs backing and Rafa deserves to be backed, so the sooner this is done the sooner that Newcastle can start their return to where they belong. But for the time being this season, the Magpies are definitely moving in the right direction and growing in confidence game-by-game, particularly at St. James' Park which has been a fortress. Four successive wins show what a hard place it is to go and with games against Everton, Crystal Palace and Southampton to come, there's no reason why they can't pick up more points as they bid for back-to-back top half finishes.

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