Rafa Benitez: Too Negative?

The prospect of new owners is allowing Newcastle United fans to dream, and some are asking, is Rafa the right man to lead Newcastle forward (should the takeover occur)? Some fans though are saying Rafa is too negative, and a manager with a more attacking mindset is the way forward. Is Rafa too negative? Let's delve in to the stats.

With a potential takeover looming large, Newcastle fans can be forgiven for getting just a little excited at what might be. Who wouldn’t want their club to be given an injection of finances, resources, and guidance?

With new ownership comes a new sense of direction, and with that a change of manager. Many fans, myself included, prior to Steve Bruce’s appointment, said that he shouldn’t be any where near the Newcastle manager’s job given that he holds the lowest win percentage in Premier League history.

Fans are clamouring for Rafa Benitez, a fan favourite, while a select few fans, as well as some corners of the media are calling for Steve Bruce to be given a chance (yes, really). Those opposing the appointment of Benitez are claiming that the Spaniard is too negative, and that the club needs a more attacking-minded coach.

Rafa’s Tactical Setup

Benitez on many occasion employed a low-block 4-5-1 with Ayoze Perez playing off Rondon. The defensive shape would invite teams on to Newcastle who would maintain their organized compact shape to soak up the pressure and look to break frequently once possession was won, involving Miguel Almiron to clinical effect.

Steve Bruce’s Tactical Setup

Early on this season Steve Bruce promised that Newcastle United would play more on the front-foot than previously, having a sly dig at his predecessor in the process. However, he quickly reverted to a more familiar defensive minded formation in a 5-3-2 utilizing Matt Ritchie and DeAndre Yedlin as wingbacks.

What the Stats Say

Approaching this from a strictly attacking point of view, I’m going to look at the following data points:

It’s also worth noting that Newcastle have 9 games left in the current season, so there’s not a true comparison in totality, but we can glean some insight and maybe put the notion that Benitez is a defensive-minded manager.

Goals Scored

Newcastle United Goal Total for the Past Several Seasons

During the 2017-18 season and 2018-2019 season, Newcastle scored 39 and 42 goals respectively. While that number seems on the low side, Newcastle’s win total was the third highest it’s been since the 2011-2012 season where Newcastle ended up with 56 goals and 19 wins.

With nine games left of the current season, Steve Bruce’s team have a total of 25 goals, 17 behind the total number of goals scored by Rafa Benitez’s 2018-2019 Newcastle, despite spending £40MM on striker Joelinton. To put this into context, Steve Bruce’s team have scored 59% of the goals compared to last season with over 76% of this season played.

Goals p/Match

With over 75% of the current season played, Newcastle are averaging around 0.86 goals p/match, lower than the 1.11 goals p/match in the 2018/19 season and the 1.03 goals p/match in the 2017/2018 season.

So far, the more expansive football promised by Steve Bruce has yet to reap the benefits, and it could be argued that the players are even more risk averse not wanting to give up possession and get hit on the counter. An interesting sidebar is that Newcastle’s passing accuracy of 74% this season, 1% more than last season and 2% more than the season before that, would seem to indicate that Steve Bruce is more inclined to have his players take less risks rather than squander the ball (only just mind).

Shots and Shots on Target

To me, this stat is perhaps the biggest differentiator of them all. During the 2017-18 season Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle had 451 shots with 149 of them on target. In the following 18-19 season they had a total of 446 shots with 142 on target.

newcastle united shots on target
Shots on Target

Newcastle have had 300 shots this season, with 97 on target. If this season gets played out, Steve Bruce’s team would have to have 16.2 shots p/game, and 5 shots on target p/game. The run down to the end of the season isn’t too kind to Newcastle, as they still have to play Man City, Sheff Utd, Spurs, and Liverpool.

In terms of how organized Newcastle were going forward, last season Rafa’s team were caught offside a total of 59 times. This season has already surpassed that total with 62. While this isn’t a direct impact, it shows that Benitez had his team well organised in the attacking half of the field as well as the defensive.

In addition to this, it’s worth pointing out that Benitez knew with a well organized and compact structure, his team didn’t need to score a lot of goals to be successful. Newcastle conceded 48 games in the Premier League last season and 47 the season before that. That’s the least amount of goals Newcastle have conceded in an entire season since the 05-06 season (Greame Souness) and the 06-07 season (Glenn Roeder).

I think it’s safe to say that Benitez buys into substance more than he does style, but to say he’s a negative manager is short-sighted to say the least. Given the right resources to bring in the right players, it’s highly probable that Benitez would increase Newcastle’s goalscoring fortunes, but don’t take it from me, take it from the man himself before he was appointed Real Madrid boss:

“People here say I am defensive,” Benitez told the assembled media.

“My Napoli team scored 104 goals a year, a record, for two consecutive seasons.”

We had a different squad [to Madrid] but we still managed to compete very well in three important competitions.”

Football Italia