SOMETIMES, you get what you pay for. The Newcastle United side that started at Old Trafford at the weekend cost a combined total of £72m. This summer, their opponents, Manchester United, spent £75m on Romelu Lukaku, with a further £15m committed in add-ons if the striker maintains the form he has been displaying in the last four months.

Money isn’t everything in football, but it is generally a pretty good determinant of how a team will fare. So while Newcastle have made a decent fist of their return to the Premier League, it could be argued that their current run of one win from their last seven games is a realistic reflection of where they stand in the top-flight’s pecking order.

Rafael Benitez certainly thinks so, and while his determination to talk finances in the wake of his side’s heaviest defeat of the season was an early salvo in the latest stage of his stand-off with Magpies owner Mike Ashley, it is hard to get away from the logic of his argument.

Newcastle’s net transfer spend this summer was around £25m, even taking into account the upgrade of Mikel Merino’s switch from Borussia Dortmund to a permanent deal. That is a somewhat crude measure of investment, but Benitez always felt it was an inadequate level of support given that even the two clubs promoted alongside the Magpies last season were spending more.

It is a long time since Newcastle were able to compete financially with the likes of Manchester United, and therefore their inability to match the Premier League title hopefuls on the pitch was hardly a surprise. What is more worrying, though, is that they have also struggled to keep pace with the majority of the sides in the bottom half of the table when it comes to strengthening their squad.  As a result, the five-point gap that currently separates them from the relegation zone is starting to look somewhat alarming.

“I think you have the six teams at the top, and they are operating at a level where they are much better than the others,” said Benitez, after his side were swept aside despite taking a first-half lead through Dwight Gayle. “We have to try to compete with everyone, but you have to do everything pretty much perfectly if you want to get a result against one of those sides. Then, with the other teams in the league, if you play like we did in the first 30 minutes, maybe you will get a good result.

“But it is very hard to get away from the money situation. For a newly-promoted team like us, it is always going to be difficult because we haven’t had the same level of money for the last couple of years. That is a massive thing. Then the teams at the top of the table, they have that money, plus all the extra money from the TV and Champions League. Plus the money they already had before. That is a big difference.”

It always comes back to money, and with Newcastle, that means it always comes back to Ashley, and his reluctance to incur further debt while he is looking to sell the club.

Takeover talks continue, although there is no sign that a resolution is imminent. Amanda Staveley was spotted at Wembley watching England last week, but her intentions with regard to Newcastle remain far from clear. Sources in the Middle East claim there has been progress behind the scenes, but substantive talks between the financier and Ashley remain some way off.

With that in mind, it has to be assumed Ashley will still be in charge when the transfer window reopens in January. Benitez was unable to persuade him to loosen the purse strings in the summer, but will be trying again at the turn of the year. Games such as Saturday’s, when Newcastle gave their all but were ultimately found wanting in terms of quality, should strengthen his case.

“I don’t know what will happen,” said Benitez. “I will keep working until January as hard as I can to improve my players, and if we can do something, we will. If not, I will try to improve the players that are available to me.”

Those players briefly looked like springing a surprise at the weekend, with Benitez’s decision to stick with an attack-minded 4-4-2 formation initially being rewarded.

Gayle’s first goal of the season was no more than Newcastle deserved after dominating the opening stages, with the striker sweeping home via the inside of the post after DeAndre Yedlin cut the ball back following an overlapping run down the right.

With the recalled Jacob Murphy sending a crisp low effort just past the post, and the visitors committing a host of men forward on the counter-attack, Manchester United looked as unsettled in the opening half-hour as they have all season.

“We didn’t start well, but I don’t blame my players,” said home boss Jose Mourinho. “I blame in the positive sense – I blame Benitez. He is very experienced, very intelligent. Their team was very well organised, they started very well, creating us problems, and we couldn’t play in our defensive areas.”

Ultimately, though, class told. Manchester United steadied the ship as the mercurial Paul Pogba centred for Anthony Martial to head home, and the hosts claimed the lead on the stroke of half-time as Chris Smalling peeled off at the back post to convert Ashley Young’s cross.

Newcastle’s full-backs were at fault for the goals – Martial out-jumped a static Yedlin, while Smalling evaded Javier Manquillo with almost embarrassing ease – and the pair are starting to look like major weaknesses given their lack of defensive nous.

Yedlin can look excellent pouring forward, but his positional awareness in a defensive capacity is often non-existent. Manquillo started the season reasonably strongly, but is beginning to morph back into the player that couldn’t hold down a place in Sunderland’s back four last season.

With Florian Lejeune also looking shaky at the heart of the backline, Newcastle found themselves outclassed in the second half. Manchester United added a third goal through Pogba, who capped a fine display by stroking home from close range after Marcus Rashford nodded the ball back across the area, and Lukaku completed the scoring when he made the most of some shambolic defending from Lejeune to play a one-two with Juan Mata and lash home.

With his side strolling to victory, Mourinho brought on six-time Ballon d’Or nominee Zlatan Ibrahimovic for an emotional return just six months after he suffered cruciate ligament damage. Benitez, on the other hand, was forced to turn to Rolando Aarons and Mo Diame.

“I still think we are doing well,” said the Newcastle boss. “With the players we have, I think we are doing quite well. Could it be better? Yes, for sure. But it could also be worse.

“I am really pleased with what I saw in the first half, and really proud of this group of players. Obviously, we know we have to improve some things if we want to be consistent in terms of getting results. But we knew that before, and we still know it now.”