Newcastle United boss Rafael Benítez was never under any illusions about the size of the task he was facing last summer.
Many might have expected the Championship winners to stroll into the middle of the Premier League pack – especially after climbing as high as fifth after three consecutive victories in September.
But reality has bitten for the Magpies, who have had periods in the relegation zone.
Benítez has not been happy with his options at the sharp end since winning promotion. Dwight Gayle, after bagging 23 times in 26 starts last season, was deemed not good enough to spearhead Newcastle’s attack in the Premier League and almost joined Fulham at the end of the summer window.
The move fell through but it was evident Benítez did not trust the former Crystal Palace forward and made £5million bargain-bin signing Joselu his first choice to lead the line.
But the Spaniard has been as poor as his time at Stoke City suggested he might be yet Gayle has never been prolific.
He has the pace to trouble teams – something Joselu lacks – and in a Newcastle side set up to sit deep and hit sides on the counter that is invaluable.
Much has been made of the way the Magpies have set up this season. Benítez, the ultimate pragmatist, has come under fire for his perceived negative tactics.
“He makes this Newcastle tactic look embarrassing,” Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville said after the Man City game.
“There’s defending, and there’s showing absolutely no ambition whatsoever. If it were a boxing match, the referee would have stopped it. Hopefully it will spark them into life, to give them something to watch.”
But the former Real Madrid and Liverpool boss is all too aware of his side’s limitations and has focused on ensuring his team are not taken apart by the division’s leading lights, potentially damaging their goal difference.
Jonjo Shelvey has been in and out of the side this season with Benítez unimpressed by the England international’s lack of discipline. There has never been any question over the 26-year-old technical ability, but his career has drifted for a reason.
That reason, as if it wasn’t already abundantly clear, was flagged up on the opening weekend of the season when Shelvey was issued a straight red card for stamping on Tottenham midfielder Dele Alli.
That petulant outburst earned him a three-match ban. In the event he sat out double that with a seething Benítez sidelining the former Liverpool player for six games.
“It was a moment of madness,” Shelvey said. “I couldn’t tell you to this day what I was doing. It was an error and that I’ve apologised for,” he told NUFC TV.
Lesson clearly not learnt, he picked up a two-game suspension after being sent off in the final minute of a 1-0 home defeat by Everton in December.
However, if Shelvey can ensure he remains available he will be imperative to Newcastle’s survival bid. None of the Magpies’ other central midfield options possess the natural talent Shelvey does. It’s why his former manager at Anfield, Brendan Rodgers, claimed on the fly-on-the-wall documentary 'Being: Liverpool', he had ‘all the tools’.
Shelvey has the vision, confidence and technical ability to lift his head, spot and execute a pass his team-mates can only dream of.
The ability is there, it’s a question of unlocking it. If Benítez can do that and put aside his distrust of the Romford-born midfielder then Newcastle’s chances of survival will only increase.