Matt Ritchie has praised the meticulous planning of Rafa Benitez for finding the marginal gains in his game, and that of an entire young squad, to lead them to a potential top-10 finish in the Premier League.
Newcastle United were deeply embroiled in a relegation fight just two months ago, but Benitez remained unflinching in his methods and his strategy to revive the club’s season.
Since the turn of the year, newly-promoted Newcastle have the fifth-best form in the top division, and have taken 16 points from the last 21, including victories against Manchester United and Arsenal.
Ritchie was persuaded to drop down from the Premier League and Bournemouth two years ago to move to St James’ Park. His captain Jamaal Lascelles has spoken in the past of the Scottish international’s desire, and how he was calling players out in training from his first session after joining, if they were not reaching the levels he believed they should.
That relentless desire has clicked with Benitez and the wide midfielder, who scored the winning goal against both Arsene Wenger’s and Jose Mourinho’s side said: “Has he made me a better player? He’s definitely improved me, yes.
“There are small details with different managers that you take on board. Every manager’s got different ideas and ways of playing, but there are details in my game that I didn’t have when I arrived.
“Definitely off the ball, I think, and more so as a team. You see when we haven’t got the ball we’re so compact and hard to break down, whether that’s against Man City or teams that were in and around us.
“We’re always hard to beat. We’ve never been rolled over, not once this season. We’ve always lost games by very small margins. We’ve always been in games. I think that’s very important at this level.
“Even when results weren’t quite going our way, we were never rolled over or went down without a fight. It’s always been one-goal margins. We’ve been on the right side of those one-goal margins in the last six weeks or so. It’s been a really good time. Hopefully, we can continue that throughout the rest of the games. It’s been a really good feeling.”
The tightness of Newcastle’s group of players has remained unflinching and that has been notable, especially during a nine-game run without a win in November and December.
“Where does the unity come from? It comes from everyone working together with the same mentality and same desire,” added Ritchie. “We’ve got a fantastic group, pushing each other every day in training. The standards are high, and that’s how it needs to be to get the best out of each other and as a team. It’s a really positive camp.
“I wouldn’t say it’s about socialising. It’s about on the training pitch making sure that we’re competitive and making sure our mentality on match days is correct.
“It’s the best feeling in the world scoring a goal. It’s obviously a proud moment for myself but also the team. To score an important goal and help the team is a fantastic feeling. To have a significant role in three points is very good, and I’m delighted for that. Most importantly, as a team, we’ve put ourselves in a fantastic position where, if we apply ourselves as we have done over the last six weeks, we’ve got a real good opportunity of finishing in the top 10. That’s down to us now. We need to continue to perform as we have done.”
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