Familiarity can so often be wonderfully reassuring but, for Newcastle United, it all too frequently provokes depression. There was to be no exception to this general Geordie rule on Sunday when the sight of Mike Ashley with his arms determinedly folded in the directors’ box simply served as a reminder of how badly the club’s owner has let Rafael Benítez down in the transfer market this summer.
As if that were not sufficient, a moment of mindless, all too typically self-destructive stupidity from Jonjo Shelvey – namely stepping on Delle Alli’s ankle straight in front of the referee – at the outset of the second half saw Benítez’s side reduced to 10 men.
Goals from Alli and Ben Davies consequently enabled a visiting team who had hitherto struggled to undo Newcastle’s defensive organisation to rediscover the benefits of what some fear has become an almost stifling familiarity.
After a summer of total transfer market frustration Mauricio Pochettino is desperate to introduce a few new faces ahead of a potential title challenge but, despite playing well within themselves, his existing crew were too good for their newly promoted hosts.
In some ways the first half went reasonably well for Newcastle; Rob Elliot’s goal was barely threatened, Christian Atsu’s pace periodically troubled the young debutant Kyle Walker-Peters, Dwight Gayle looked lively if not exactly subtle and Pochettino’s mounting frustration seemed highlighted when he ordered Moussa Sissoko and Christian Eriksen to swap flanks. Arguably, most reassuringly of all, the Tynesiders defended very well.
Yet there was still plenty to worry Benítez. Foremost among his concerns must have been Shelvey’s struggles to touch the ball, let alone unleash a penetrative play-making pass but Newcastle’s collective penchant for forfeiting possession far too cheaply can hardly have represented a cause for optimism either.
It did not help that Paul Dummett’s early attempt to intercept Sissoko left…