Ever since the loss to Blackburn Rovers that kicked off 2017, it’s fair to say the air of tactical invincibility Rafa Benitez boasted at Newcastle United was at least starting to be questioned.
That is not to say the Spaniard is battling a turning tide by any means, but the fact the Magpies soon ran out of ideas against a side closing in on League One was a cause for concern.
Benitez has largely stuck to a rather rigid 4-2-3-1 formation this term, a system that can help the Toon control possession in swathes, though not exactly a setup that promotes a huge amount of fluidity.
Which is exactly why the absence of Jonjo Shelvey looks so gutting, with neither Isaac Hayden or Jack Colback likely to find a killer ball.
Playing with two defensive midfielders usually means both will take an extra touch or two and kill attacks, with the likes of Mo Diame, Matt Ritchie and Yoan Gouffran also not doing much in the way of creating when Newcastle are at their worst.
Still, yesterday’s FA Cup clash with Birmingham City could have been the start of something special.
For the first time, probably since the win over Norwich City when the team poured forward, Benitez showed his ability to flick between a variety of formations, moving from his usual 4-2-3-1 standing to more of a 5-3-2 and then a 3-5-2 when the full-backs bombed forward.
While the 1-1 draw wasn’t the best result, familiarising the side with a number of fluid ways of playing is at least moving to stop such performances as the ones we’ve seen against Sheffield Wednesday and the Rovers of late, with the Toon looking entirely bereft of ideas by the second half.
Though Aleksandar Mitrovic went off injured, the notion of pairing him and Daryl Murphy is a formidable battering-ram like alternative to Dwight Gayle, who looks all too often isolated when Newcastle aren’t playing well.
How many times this season has Benitez dragged Ayoze Perez on to little effect as he tries to force a creative spark behind the Championship’s top scorer? Hopefully, we’re starting to see a departure from that frustrating trend.
Achraf Lazaar is another who has not been handed too much in the way of game time yet, though the Moroccan looked lively on the left yesterday and can be called upon to perform wing-back duties when the team need to force themselves behind enemy lines.
Clearly, it wasn’t exactly the perfect outing, but these are promising signs from Benitez, a man who has been viewed upon as too rigid throughout his career.
The over-reliance on Shelvey is simply scary, though tactical tinkerings such as his work in the second city show he’s really trying to move away from that trend.