COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
There are two things about which there can be no debate: the merit of Rafa Benitez and the staid, attritional football that his best sides can serve up at their destructive peak.
The Spaniard is obsessive about the defensive shape, and takes compactness between the lines of his teams to an almost fetishist level, famously doing the accordion movement on the touchline, among other frenzied gesticulations, urging the squeezing of space and micromanaging like the world’s most irascible orchestra conductor.
Back in the Premier League, his Newcastle United team have been tepid rather than thrilling, aside a 3-0 hammering of the West Ham United on the third weekend this season, but nonetheless racked up three wins on the bounce before last weekend’s loss to Brighton and Hove Albion and the 1-1 draw with Liverpool on Sunday.
There are very few pretensions to the Magpies: in midfield Isaac Hayden pairs Mikel Merino, and while the Spaniard is the more progressive of the two with the ball, it is a double pivot that is inherently defensive, and sets the tone for the rest of the side.
With Ayoze Perez more a supporting striker than a playmaker, there is a huge burden on the wide areas for creativity within the team. It is one that, for all that his small frame is given more to speed than graft, Christian Atsu is tasked to bear at St James’ Park.
The Ghana international made his loan move to Newcastle from Chelsea permanent in the summer following a successful first season that saw Benitez steer the Toon to promotion at the first attempt. The former Liverpool and Napoli boss has bristled noticeably at the lack of investment in the team in preparation for the return to the big time, but has got on with it, putting his faith on the industry and imagination of Atsu in wide positions.
Just the one goal and one assist so far this term though, which is a return that is neither here nor there. It certainly has not caught the eye, but it is almost a relief in itself that Atsu is finally playing in the Premier League; for so long, it seemed like he was doomed to bounce around on sundry loans, a swift rolling stone gathering no moss.
Yet, there is no shortage of ability.
While there is a veritable array of nimble, young, left-footed attackers dubbed the ‘new Messi’ of their country, the breadth of his skillset made the comparison look a lot less risible for a time, especially when he burst into the public consciousness as a teenager at Porto.
His wand of a left foot has fetched him acclaim with the Ghana national team, with whom he was named tournament MVP in an ill-fated run to the final of the 2015 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations Cup, mirroring the Argentine’s similar frustrations at international level.
He is also direct and fearless in his running, but his quick feet and sharp changes of direction mark him out as a lot more than a simple speedster. In a team that is at its best playing on the break, Atsu quickly becomes the focal point going forward.
Yet, one has to wonder if Newcastle get the best use out of him.
For one thing, playing him on the left, where he has started all but once in the Premier League this term, effectively negates his shooting, which is a major strength. In 12 Championship starts on the right last season, Atsu was on the scoresheet four times, compared to once in 21 starts on the left.
On the left, he plays an old-fashioned, more orthodox winger role, tasked with maintaining the width on that flank in much the same way as Mark Gonzalez and Albert Riera were instructed to while under Benitez at Liverpool, especially as there is a dearth of proper attacking thrust from left full-back.
The throwback which was even more poignant when the Magpies welcomed free-flowing Liverpool on Sunday, and while the Reds bear no more markers of the Benitez era, the Spaniard has swiftly molded Newcastle in his own image, albeit with the more progressive Jonjo Shelvey replacing Hayden in midfield.
As Liverpool cavorted with Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Coutinho upfront, the difference could not possibly be starker, even if both sides ultimately just managed one goal apiece.
Benitez, and by extension Atsu, look very much like men out of time.