In the most unpredictable of Premier League seasons -- with Leicester City now favourites to win the title, Newcastle United have appointed Rafa Benítez as manager. The former Liverpool manager succeeds the much-maligned Steve McClaren in charge of the Tyneside club. A three-year-contract has reportedly been agreed with an escape clause in the event of relegation. Amazingly, Benítez started the season as Real Madrid manager before being sacked in January; today he is managing a club in the relegation zone of England's top flight.
A league win percentage of 21% in the McClaren era left the club in real danger of relegation with Norwich City and Sunderland all fighting to avoid joining Aston Villa in the Championship next season. If loyal members of the Toon Army are uncertain about what they're getting, their new manager isn't afraid of a challenge. His stock was high when he took charge of Liverpool after winning two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup at Valencia, but since leaving Liverpool, he has made some considerably brave decisions.
Joining Chelsea when most fans weren't particularly fond of him and following José Mourinho at a physically destroyed Internazionale (see: Chelsea's struggles this season) were curious moves. Napoli and Real Madrid were attractive and ambitious projects that appealed to a fierce competitor. Since his Valencia days, Benítez has managed a win percentage that sits comfortably around 53.59% in league action in Spain, Italy, and England.
A manager who favours defensive organisation, balance, high tempo attacking, tactical intelligence, and exploiting the weaknesses of the opposition could become the first man to keep a side in the relegation zone up after being appointed in March. Eleven sides fumbling around in the bottom three have tried and failed to retain Premier League status after replacing a manager in the first month of Spring. Was this a move out of desperation for both parties or an arrangement that arose through unique circumstances?
Although Jürgen Klopp didn't take over a Liverpool side fighting relegation, the former Borussia Dortmund manager could have possibly waited for jobs at Chelsea, Real Madrid, or even Bayern Munich. Instead Klopp chose Liverpool to coach, to work, to rebuild, and to be an key figure at the club. Benítez has taken a similar approach, which actually represents a far greater task. He's not a manager who should be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce, and there can be no shred of doubt that this appointment is a significant upgrade in the Magpies' dugout.
Many fans have often wondered why some high-profile managers don't take challenges such as fighting relegation or gaining promotion. Whatever the circumstances surrounding this appointment or the assessment of the new Newcastle United manager's current managerial credentials, this represents an opportunity to observe a most curious rescue operation. No matter what happens, it will add another fascinating story in a surprising Premier League season.
Newcastle United players will find that doing their job and carrying out the manager's instructions is the only way to remain in the team. Liverpool players understood that in six seasons -- Benítez's longest spell at a club -- under the demanding and meticulous manager. They also realised, however, that his tactical preparation and knowledge was simply exceptional. In a league that is increasingly becoming a throwback to 1990s top flight action, tactics can provide a considerable advantage.
After dramatically winning the Champions League in 2005 and FA Cup in 2006, Benítez went desperately close in 2007 and 2009 to adding further domestic and European glory to Liverpool. During his time on Merseyside, Liverpool were the most consistent and dangerous side in the Champions League over a five-year period. Keeping a side shorn of confidence and direction in the Premier League before a rush of television money next season could be a key moment for the North-East club. Beyond keeping the club in the Premier League, do not underestimate the desire of this manager to shape a club in his image.
The Tyne-Wear derby between Newcastle and Sunderland will feature two old foes in the dugout as well as being a relegation six-pointer. Expect sparks to fly. Before that, however, is a game against surprise Premier League leaders Leicester City on Monday. This is a Premier League return for Liverpool's former manager where the fans will be behind him. Good luck Rafa.