Some people question what Pep Guardiola could do with less money at his disposal and less talent. Well, if they care to look at Rafael Benitez and Newcastle they might get an approximation of the answer.
With plenty of players who came up from the Championship - and with an owner unwilling to spend in the transfer market - Benitez is demonstrating what good coaching and a clarity of purpose can do for a club of modest means.
It would be natural to look at Newcastle – with their massive stadium and illustrious history – and conclude they are a team who belong in the upper reaches of the Premier League. But for Benitez to have this squad of players aiming for a spot as high as eighth in their first season back in the top flight is a momentous achievement.
And like Guardiola - who’s won the title with five games to go – Benitez has fulfilled his season’s objectives ahead of schedule. Newcastle’s win against Arsenal on Sunday was their fourth in succession; 12 precious points late in the season that have given them safe distance from the drop and carried them over that 40 points milestone.
“Forty points at the start of the season is the target that everyone looks for,” says winger Matt Ritchie. “Credit to everyone involved."
It may have been their first victory against Arsenal in the league since 2005 but the result should have been no surprise to anyone who opened a form book this year. Their only defeats since losing to the Gunners at the Emirates in mid-December have come against Manchester City and Liverpool.
“At Arsenal away I remember we got beat 1-0 but towards the end we were always pushing, pushing in the game,” added Ritchie, who scored the winner on Sunday. “I think that’s the key thing in this league – to stay in the game and give yourself an opportunity. You will always get chances.”
There is a tenacity – and a defiance – with which Benitez’s squad go into every game. His attention to detail and his ability to improve the players on the books have helped earn Newcastle their consolidation in the division.
“We give ourselves these opportunities to win games or to take points from games,” says Ritchie. “That’s down to our work ethic on and off the ball. Everyone’s working so hard. That’s the difference between being on the right side and the wrong side of those results.”
Benitez has had to work throughout his time at St James’ Park like a man with a knife in a gunfight. While Guardiola can go into the market backed by the sovereign wealth of a Middle East nation, Benitez cannot.
He and the owner Mike Ashley plainly do not see eye to eye on transfer matters and fans can’t wait to see the back of the unpopular Londoner. Locals have already had to endure the frustration of seeing two bids from Amanda Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners group knocked back for failing to meet the asking price.
And one disconcerting result of the club’s current ownership conundrum is that Benitez is reluctant to discuss the terms of a new contract with his current deal expiring in 2019. If Ashley expects any other manager to achieve with these players what Benitez has then he’s got another thing coming. Losing Benitez means losing stability. It means losing the means by which they have overshot this season’s expectations.
Guardiola has been able to rectify mistakes in the market by spending big on Ederson and Aymeric Laporte after considering the struggles of Claudio Bravo and John Stones. That is not to underplay Guardiola’s stunning season but a mere indication that he is working in a very different world from the one Benitez inhabits.
Instead his net spend this season is around £22 million (according to Transfermarkt) and his landmark deals were for Jacob Murphy of Norwich City and Florian Lejeune – a City castoff acquired from Eibar in Spain.
Kenedy, from Chelsea, and Islam Slimani of Leicester have been added on loan while the impressive goalkeeper Martin Dubravka will be signed on a permanent deal from Sparta Prague this summer. The rest of the time he’s had to make do with solid Championship performers like Ritchie, Jamaal Lascelles and Dwight Gayle.
“He’s definitely improved me,” says Ritchie. “For sure. There’s small details that with different managers you take on board and every manager has got different ideas and ways of playing.
“There’s details in my game now that I didn’t have before I arrived. Definitely off the ball - more so as a team than an individual.
“It’s small details you see when we haven’t got the ball. We’re so compact, we’re so hard to break down – whether that’s against Man City or teams that were in and around us.”
Lascelles, an awe-inspiring presence at centre-back, is in England contention and his importance was noted during an injury-enforced absence in the winter. In five games without the 24-year-old, Newcastle picked up a solitary point.
That said, Newcastle have not been hammered in games this season as some Championship teams might expect upon promotion. Benitez's football may not dazzle like Guardiola’s but he makes sure his team have a foothold in every match and are ready to strike out for a point or three when the opportunity comes.
There was an agonising narrowness to the margins earlier on in the season – especially through that spell of one point in nine games – but there has been more success in that respect in recent weeks.
“Throughout the whole season, even when the results weren’t quite going our way, we’ve never really been rolled over or gone down without a fight,” says Ritchie. “It’s always been one-goal margins. We’ve worked for it and we’ve been on the right side of those one-goal margins in the last six weeks or so.
“It [unity] comes from everyone working together with the same mentality, the same desire. We’ve got a fantastic group pushing each other each day in training. Standards are high and that’s how it needs to be to get the best out of each other and as a team.
“It’s a really positive camp. It’s about on the training pitch making sure we’re competitive and making sure our mentality on matchdays is correct.”
The touch paper was lit with a good win at home against Manchester United - and arch nemesis Jose Mourinho - at the start of February and Newcastle haven’t looked back since. From a precarious position only one point clear of the bottom three, Benitez and his squad have accelerated. Not quite as high as Guardiola admittedly but there is a good chance of Newcastle being “best of the rest” after Burnley in seventh come the end of the season.
“We were around the bottom three and if we hadn’t have won that game, we might have been in a different fight,” says Ritchie who got the winner that day too. “But we did win that game and that’s football and we’ve kicked on since then.”
The next step after consolidation is improvement. Money has to be spent in the Premier League just to stand still and, if Ashley does not manage to do a deal for the club to be sold, that could spell problems. Benitez has shown that his methodical approach can work with a lesser calibre of player than he enjoyed at Valencia, Liverpool, Inter, Chelsea and Real Madrid and deserves to be backed in order to realise his vision.
He spoke before the Arsenal game of his desire for a project; somewhere he could stay for a long time and fine-tune a club to his specifications. He wants to work somewhere he can integrate his own youth-team prospects into a squad containing top-quality performers from whom they can learn.
It may not be as high profile as the one Guardiola's currently running down in Manchester but Benitez is deserving of his chance to turn this famous old ground into his headquarters.