Never before has a derby fixture meant more. On 20 March 2016, the fate of two clubs lay at the feet of a few men in a match for the ages. The form guide is gone; it’s not about quality, it’s not about tactics – this one is a fight for survival, and will be won by whoever wants it more.
And until last week, it was a foregone conclusion – Sunderland was the only foreseeable winner. Then Steve McClaren was gone, and in his place, Rafael Benítez has thrown his reputation into the most lucrative relegation battle in Premier League history. And the big match just got bigger.
The warning signs for Sunderland are there already. It’s taken Benítez just three days to take a 4231 formation – the Geordies’ bane for years – and make it work, in a genuinely good effort at Leicester City. Even the Magpies’ counter-attacks, previously just half-decent all season, looked threatening. It’s encouraging work so far for a manager who, if nothing else, knows ways to ‘not lose’ matches.
Fortunately, from a Sunderland perspective, the 55 year old Spaniard has never introduced himself to a team with so many weaknesses; notably: being duds at goal-scoring, coping horrifically with players who demonstrate even the basic of the basic technical skill; and becoming a collective omni-shambles in their own defensive third, by failing defensively against: wingers, set-pieces, long-shots, through-balls, counter-attacks, and aerial offense. Real Madrid, Newcastle United ain’t.
That said; if Benítez can use organisation as a motivational tool for his players, there are a few whose best is enough to win matches for Newcastle. Georginio Wijnaldum stands out for sheer goal contribution when momentum is on his side. The ever-underperforming Moussa Sissoko put in a shift that made a difference at the King Power Stadium. Daryl Janmaat is consistent enough. Up top, Aleksandar Mitrović and Ayoze Pérez combined make up 11 league goals, and can be a force together.
Fortunately, what is currently mere potential for Rafa Benítez is already something more for Sam Allardyce at Sunderland. It has taken the Black Cats chief since October last year to rid his players of their negative mindset, p***-poor defending, and that unidentifiable playing style brought about from years of on-off mismanagement. Since October! Benítez, after fifteen years of coaching talented and self-motivated players, must now do the same thing – and avoid relegation – with just nine matches.
Yet still, player for player, you could debate that Sunderland are the team to edge the derby on Sunday. There’s enough experience in Younès Kaboul and John O’Shea to blunt Mitrović entirely, and Lamine Koné has the attitude and the stamina to cope with the attacking flair of Wijnaldum, Sissoko and Andros Townsend. Expect Patrick van Aanholt to wreck havoc in attack too.
While Jonjo Shelvey can stand still and punt long balls all day long, does he have the stomach for a midfield war with a 6"0 powerhouse in the great interceptor, Yann M’Vila? A defensive midfield setup of Shelvey and the so-so Vurnon Anita can be removed from possession altogether by the passing range of M’Vila and Jan Kirchhoff. Throw in back-up from workhorse battlers, Lee Cattermole and Sebastian Larsson, and Sunderland arguably have enough to out-perform Newcastle’s midfield.
As for attacking players, Dick Advocaat once asked Jermain Defoe – "Do I even need to tell you what to do?" ‘Nuff said there. Jeremain Lens, when he feels like it, can cause all manner of problems. Then there’s Fabio Borini, who seemingly gets some sort of sick satisfaction out of making Newcastle’s season as miserable as possible. If there is such a thing as a ‘Mag Slayer’, it’s him; and he’ll be relishing the chance to run at the utter-garbage Steven Taylor and Jamaal Lascelles.
So does this mean Sunderland will win on Sunday? No. There’s ways that it could happen though; most of what Newcastle struggle at defensively are areas Sunderland excel at, such as Wahbi Khazri’s set piece play, and the team’s overall aerial advantage. If Benítez persists with a defensive game plan in order to secure a point in this match; that may also back-fire against Sunderland’s recent high-shooting surge. There’s also the mentality factor for Newcastle United, as most of their current squad have been clobbered by the Black Cats across the last six derby matches since April 2013.
But, of course, this is one derby day battle that will spill out beyond just 90 minutes. Because, when this match ends, no matter what the outcome is, the relegation fight goes on; and it is because of these remaining matches, and the consequences of losing them, that makes this match on Sunday so crucial. The result will have a lasting effect on both teams heading into the season’s end.
To the neutral supporter, Newcastle United needs this win more. Obviously they do, they haven’t won this fixture in forever, but they also need momentum fast. When Rémi Garde nicked a draw against Manchester City on his managerial debut for Aston Villa, it looked promising. That’s as far as Rafa Benítez has come with the Magpies: just one good performance. He needs a win to make that loss to Leicester City mean something; before the critics compare this north-east stint with his brutally unsuccessful spells at Real Valladolid CF, CA Osasuna and CF Extremadura; where he was involved in relegation and two sackings between 1996 and 2001. Yeah, Rafa Benítez – the world-class coach who has gobbled up every club accolades available – could’ve had a very different career had an already-good Valencia CF not made him their fourth-choice shock appointment in 2001.
But Rafa is smart enough to know that survival isn’t guaranteed just because he has been successful with better players than he has now. Newcastle’s possible relegation won’t sour his reputation one iota either; that 3-year contract safeguards his own future more than the clubs, and he would be absolved of any blame should he relegate the Toon Army. After all, he only had ten games.
As for Sunderland, the momentum in this relegation fight is still firmly with Sam Allardyce. The Black Cats are in good form for a bottom-half side, and losses are finally turning to, at least, draws. History is on Allardyce’s side, and with his players. Everybody involved with the first team knows how to navigate through the end-of-season run-in and come out as Premier League mainstays. Better still, since Big Sam took the helm, Sunderland has averaged as many points as games played. If that trend continues, another 9 points from 9 games will be enough to end the season on a high.
Unless Norwich City relegate both of us.
Here we go again.