MATT RITCHIE has described how crucial Rafa Benitez’s influence has been to Newcastle United’s successful first season back in the Premier League and how there is a desire to ensure they build on it.

Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Arsenal took the Magpies beyond the magical 40-point mark Benitez had targeted as a priority to keep top-flight football at St James’ Park.

Four wins in a row has given them the extra edge when it has mattered in the fight for survival and now, considering their excellent form, there is even a chance they could finish eighth if it continues.

A victory over Everton next Monday will lift them up to at least ninth and that represents an impressive first year back in the big league with just four matches remaining, despite a frugal approach to the transfer market.

Benitez’s impact cannot be under-estimated and he would love to be able to carry on the progress the club has made under his watch next season, and he will want some extra spending power when it comes to attracting new players.

Ritchie, one of the Spaniard’s first signings when he moved from Bournemouth to help lead the charge up from the Championship, is certainly appreciative of everything Benitez has done for him – and the rest of the team.

"It's a good feeling when you keep winning,” said Ritchie. “There's a good feeling around. We need to continue that. We need to keep the city happy. It's a fantastic stadium and a fantastic place to play. The good feeling about the stadium, we need to continue that.

"The manager has definitely improved me. 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 Manchester 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.

“We gave ourselves a chance in the second half (against Arsenal). I remember Arsenal away we were beaten 1-0, but we were always pushing in the game. You will always get chances."

With the exception of a couple of blips earlier in the season, the scorelines do suggest Newcastle have still been in the majority of matches even when they have lost.

Watford’s surprise 3-0 victory on Tyneside in November was the only time this season when Newcastle have been beaten by two goals or more by a team outside of the top four.

That was the case even when Newcastle went through a run of just one win in 12 matches before and after Christmas when the uncertainty over the ownership of the club was at its highest.

Ritchie said: "The unity comes from everyone working together with the same mentality and same desire. 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 been 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.

“I'm not saying that when we weren't getting good results that we weren't doing that - we've had the same mentality week in, week out - but it's small margins.

“The one-goal margins that we were on the wrong side of, we're now on the right side of. It's good to be on the winning side of them, and hopefully we can continue that.

"40 points at the start of the season was sort of the target that everyone looks for. It's a credit to everyone involved throughout the whole season. Even when results weren't quite going our way, we were never rolled over or went down without a fight.”

Ritchie has also found his scoring touch in recent weeks after failing to carry on his goal-run in the Championship. His neat finish against Arsenal on Sunday was his third of the campaign – and all have arrived since February.

"It's the best feeling in the world scoring,” he said. “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 ten. That's down to us now. We need to continue to perform as we have done."