Not only has Rafa Benitez has effected a change in personnel at Newcastle in the two years since taking charge for the first time, but the core psychology of the team has been altered by a manager whose tenure began in defeat.
Parachuted in by a desperate Mike Ashley with the brief to save a United side deep in relegation trouble, Benitez began his initial 10-match reign with a 1-0 loss to eventual Premier League champions Leicester just 72 hours after succeeding the hapless Steve McClaren.
The squad inherited by Benitez prior to that game beamed with talent, players with the natural ability to lift Newcastle away from danger but gravely bereft of substance, shorn of the backbone and the fight or flight instinct required to keep their necks above water in a survival scrap.
Benitez returned to the scene of his first match in charge last weekend in different circumstances and with a different team, a group fully committed and engaged in their mission to avoid relegation, fuelled by togetherness and continuously inspired by a manager to be greater than the sum of its parts, unrecognisable from the gifted but infuriatingly passive group he selected from in 2016.
In the intervening two years between visits to the King Power Stadium, Benitez has overseen a remarkable transition from a ‘team that didn’t really want to try’ to a ‘team that genuinely does try’ and one whose dedication and incremental progress has been duly rewarded.
The performance at Leicester – an established top-flight team with European aspirations no less – was described as ‘polished’ and ‘accomplished’, just a few of the complimentary adjectives used in match reports and headlines written after Newcastle had departed the Midlands with three points following a 2-1 win that virtually secured Premier League football for next season.
Both goals were scored by two players from the pre-Benitez era, a duo who have benefitted enormously from the United boss’ commitment to coaching, joining the many others who are thriving under his guidance.
Again though, while those decisive contributions may have come from individuals, it was the collective that earned United a third league win in a row, including one passage of play that characterised the Benitez era in its current state, a 30 second segment during which Newcastle won seven 50-50 challenges in protection of the 1-0 lead they held at the time.
The manner in which Newcastle fought for that victory, knowing that a maximum point haul would near-enough guarantee safety, encapsulated the transformative impact Benitez has made in two years, his achievement considered even more brilliant when you consider the microscopic parameters he has been forced to operate within under Ashley.
Supporters longed for a ‘team that tries’, articulating their wishes in the form of banners, and Benitez has delivered one, the victory at Leicester seeing Newcastle occupy 10th position in the table with six matches remaining, offering just a taste of what the Spaniard can accomplish with the right backing.
The next big change at Newcastle must be the ownership, and only then might Benitez be furnished with the tools to inject some fresh talent to compliment the work ethic and elevate United to the next level.