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Benitez is having to cope with the weakest squad of the Mike Ashley era; THE AGENDA: Problems which have not been addressed come back to haunt Magpies.

Byline: Mark Douglas NUFC Editor @MSIDOUGLAS

WHEN Rafa Benitez crunched the numbers before his meeting with Mike Ashley to set a summer transfer budget, two things stood out about the squad which had just won the Championship title.

For the born problem-solver, two issues stood out which had to be addressed.

Firstly, it was a very young squad. Without additions, the average age of the likely United line-up was younger than any team in the league barring Tottenham, a side whose youthful zest had carried them to second place in the Premier League.

Secondly, there was a real lack of Premier League experience.

Just three of the players he wanted to keep had more than 100 top-flight appearances under their belt and his most experienced player (Mo Diame) was only ever intended as a fringe man.

It was with this in mind Benitez was looking to use a sizeable slice of his budget to bring in someone to act as the "brain" of his team.

The best possible scenario would have seen Pepe Reina brought in to pull together a team with a captain who had played just 18 times in the top flight (Jamaal Lascelles) and a winger, Matt Ritchie, who had featured just 38 times.

Yet when experienced players disappeared out of view due, mainly, to wage restrictions on Newcastle's summer recruitment, Benitez's mood darkened. A job which was already challenging became even more treacherous.

So it has proved. After Newcastle earned 15 points from seven games - their best start since 2011/12 when the team almost qualified for the Champions League - they have since slumped to their worst-ever 17-game points total in the Premier League era. With 16 goals from those games, it is also the fewest times they have scored in that number of matches too.

United's fans remain behind Benitez, though, and our analysis shows why. He is in charge of the weakest squad - in terms of experience, know-how and firepower - of the Ashley era. Arguably, they are shortest on quality too.

These things are subjective, of course. It's tough to compare Newcastle's 2015/16 squad and this crop player for player but respected German website Transfermarkt offers some sort of context.

They have been compiling market values for every Premier League squad for the past 20 seasons and by their analysis: | Pound for pound, Benitez has the LOWEST-valued squad of any United manager of the Ashley era.

| United's squad value is SIXTEENTH in the Premier League - no previous manager has had such a low collective valuation.

| This is the LEAST experienced squad of the Ashley era.

- It is the first time in the Ashley era the starting XI doesn't have an international at a top-20 ranked FIFA nation.

It is Benitez's job to over-achieve with the resources he has, of course.

The current situation is not helped by the manager's tactical restlessness or shuffling of players who are low on confidence.

Yet it is hard to argue that this squad appears more limited than any Ashley has equipped for the Premier League. Combined, they have fewer than 100 Premier League goals on their CVs. Benitez does not appear to have the resource of previous managers.

Alarmingly, Benitez's 2017/18 team have now dropped below the number of points Steve McClaren's side were picking up when Newcastle were relegated in 2015/16.

McClaren's team under-performed, though. In February, he picked the following team: Rob Elliot, Daryl Janmaat, Fabricio Coloccini, Steven Taylor, Gini Wijnaldum, Moussa Sissoko, Jonjo Shelvey, Rolando Aarons, Cheick Tiote, Andros Townsend and Aleksandar Mitrovic.

Benitez has just four of those players at his disposal and the replacements for Janmaat, Wijnaldum, Sissoko and Townsend have been younger and less expensive.

Mikel Merino is Wijnaldum's replacement, DeAndre Yedlin has replaced Janmaat, Diame was Sissoko's replacement and Andros Townsend was replaced by Ritchie. Newcastle made a substantial profit on every one of those transactions.

A personal feeling is even Chris Hughton's 2011 vintage - a team supplemented by Tiote and Hatem Ben Arfa after the manager mistakenly made a case to bring in Sol Campbell - was better. In their spine of Steve Harper, Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and Andy Carroll they had more strength and know-how than the current group. Add the two new arrivals into the mix and it was a capable side.

Benitez - who has signed many of these players - must improve. But so too must the quality of the squad.

SQUAD ANALYSIS OVER THE ASHLEY ERA (TOP FLIGHT SEASONS) 2007/8 Managers: Sam Allardyce/Kevin Keegan Squad value (according to Transfermarkt): PS122.31m Sixth biggest squad value League position: 12th (-6) Average age: 25.1 2008/9 Managers: Kevin Keegan/Joe Kinnear/ Chris Hughton (interim)/Alan Shearer Squad: PS129.69m Eighth biggest squad value League position: 18th (-10) Average age: 24.8 2010/11 Managers: Chris Hughton/Alan Pardew Squad: PS86.09m Fourteenth biggest squad value League position: 12th (+2) Average age: 23.7 2011/12 Manager: Alan Pardew Squad: PS108.47m Tenth biggest squad value League position: 5th (+5) Average age: 24.1 2012/13 Manager: Alan Pardew Squad: PS171.41m Seventh biggest squad value League position: 16th (-9) Average age: 24.1 2013/14 Manager: Alan Pardew Squad: PS169.97m Eighth biggest squad value League position: 10th (-2) Average age: 24.4 2014/15 Manager: Alan Pardew/John Carver Squad: PS125.87m Ninth biggest squad value League position: 15th (-6) Average age: 22.9 2015/16 Manager: Steve McClaren Squad value: PS180.59m Eighth biggest squad value League position: 18th (-10) Average age: 23.6 2017/18: Manager: Rafa Benitez Squad: PS123.30m 16th biggest squad value League position: 18th (-2) Average age: 25.8

United's fans remain behind Benitez, though, and our analysis shows why

CAPTION(S):

Mo Diame is the most experienced member of the United squad yet he was only ever intended to be a fringe player

Rafa Benitez has had to make do with a squad which is short on
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Dec 19, 2017
Words:992
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