With 21 games gone and 25 points on the board, it feels like a good time to make an admission.
As one of the thousands of fans left underwhelmed by his appointment as manager of Newcastle United, I’m more than happy to admit that I underestimated Steve Bruce.
After joining the club during a chaotic summer, in his first half-season, Bruce has led the team to a total of points that should be enough to ensure survival in the Premier League. For this, he deserves some credit.
As someone that has been – and remains – a vocal sceptic of Bruce’s stewardship, his relative success has surprised me. I simply undervalued the leadership and man-management qualities that any former captain of Manchester United would be able to offer our workman-like team.
His understanding of what makes players tick, knowing when they need a rollicking or an arm around their shoulder, has helped galvanise the team to earn points from losing positions on four occasions this season, helped Miggy end his goalscoring drought, Jonjo Shelvey revive a flagging career and elicited a positive run of form after the 5-0 drubbing at Leicester.
While results are ultimately what Bruce will be judged upon, there is now a growing body of evidence that he has no clue how to implement his promise of a more ‘expansive’ style football without ruining the 7th meanest defence in the league last season.
Rafa’s short blanket
Before we dive into how Bruce has tinkered with the team this season, it’s important to show the direction that Benitez’s consistent – if extremely pragmatic – approach had Newcastle going in before he left.
Following a terrible start to last season during which we failed to register a win until late October, the addition of Almiron to Perez and Rondon upfront had helped Benitez to find a way to make his infamous “short blanket” at just a little longer.
The table below shows Benitez’s last 18 games in charge and the team narrowing the gap in both expected goals between the quality of the chances his team was creating in attack (xG) and giving up in defence (xGA):
You can find a basic understanding of how xG works on Opta’s site.
This success was based on a structured 5-4-1 system featuring three central defenders, two holding midfielders and two inside forwards (Perez & Almiron) operating in the half-space between the central striker (Rondon) and the overlapping wingbacks. It relied on knocking direct balls up to Rondon who would use his strength win headers and hold onto the ball to bring Perez, Almiron and any other supporting players into the attack.
When defending, Perez and Almiron would drop back to create a four across midfield giving the opposition nine players across the width of the penalty area to play through. It was narrow and difficult for even the best of teams to play through.
Bruce’s search for an offensive gameplan
Following the departure of Perez and Rondon, it was inevitable that Bruce’s Newcastle’s would go through some growing pains as they searched for a new system that suited the new players such as Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin.
In the two opening games, Bruce opted for his favoured 5-3-2 shape which looked disjointed at best against Arsenal and atrocious at Norwich. Simply the midfield trio used in this system has to cover the same lateral area as the four players Rafa used, making it easier to find space down the side and beat their futile attempts to pressure the ball.
Sensibly, Bruce identified it wasn’t working and went with what the players know and reverted to Bentiez’s gameplan against Spurs. Dropping Shelvey for Longstaff and closing the gaps in midfield.
It resulted in a hard-fought, but fortunate, 1-0 victory and Joelinton’s only league goal to date. The attack wasn’t firing, but at least we were tight and organised defensively, this how being hard to play through looks 👇
In the weeks that followed, Bruce continued with a system that was by in large the same as Benitez, relying on ‘Big Joe’ to win headers, hold up the ball and bring others into play.
It wasn’t pretty, our attack looked underbaked, despite his size Joelinton looks uncomfortable in his new role and Newcastle could barely hold onto the ball. Despite all of this, the quality of our defence helped us scrape draws vs. Watford and Brighton.
Bruce had a decision to make, stick with it and help Joelinton to get used to a new role, new league and new surroundings or make moves to become more ‘expansive’.
Bruce’s opted for the latter and against Leicester, he switched it up. Reverting to four at the back, two holding midfielders, a number 10 in the middle of two wingers and a lone frontman in a 4-2-3-1 shape.
What followed wasn’t pretty 👀
After conceding the opener to a great strike from Periera, followed by a red card, a mistake from Dubravka and an own goal from Dummett and an xGA of just 1.1 it might actually be worth another crack at some point, but it remains to be seen that Bruce has the coaching chops to make it work.
After another chastening experience, Bruce welcomed Saint-Maximin from injury and reverted back to Rafa’s 5-4-1 shape for tight games against Man Utd and Wolves before tinkering with the balance of personnel again to give the team some attacking grunt.
Looking for more creativity in the team, Bruce was happy doing what Benitez wouldn’t do for the majority of last season and start Jonjo Shelvey.
It’s a trade-off which loses some of Newcastle’s defensive solidity – as Shelvey isn’t the best athlete or disciplined with his positioning – but it does give the team more quality from long passes and set pieces.
The final two clips from the video above should be the basis for Newcastle’s attacking play the rest of the season. Drawing teams onto us, winning the ball back before passing over the top for runs in behind the defence or balls into Joelinton’s feet around the halfway line, who lays it off to a midfielder to plays it into the space his movement towards the ball has created. With the speed of Almiron and Saint-Maximin, it should help us carry more threat.
Now comfortable with this, Bruce was rewarded in games that followed against Villa (L), Man City (D), Sheffield United (W) and Southampton (W). Sure we were lucky, but we carried some threat and the players appeared familiar and comfortable with this gameplan.
Following an avoidable hamstring injury to Allan Saint-Maximin and a toss-up of a game against Burnley, Bruce again lost patience and switched back to the same problematic 5-3-2 he used against Norwich for the games against Palace (an incredibly lucky W), Man Utd (L) and Everton (L).
There was no need for changes to the formation, Joelinton is more than capable of playing wide (signs actually point to him being better there) with Carroll through the middle.
A simple rotation of players would allow Bruce to freshen legs and play a tighter game his team are comfortable with, in the hope of nicking a result. But as we’ve seen Bruce is happier taking risks than preserving what he has.
In the home game versus Leicester Bruce’s latest tactical opus has been to return to the 5-4-1 (👍) but doing so alongside a high-press AND a deep defence creating huge gaps between the two lines of defence (👎 ). This approach also exacerbated the injuries, pushing players bodies beyond their limits.
It all adds up to a manager that feels out of his depth tactically, one that doesn’t really understand what impact his changes are having and relying on individual performances from his players to bail him out. It is, as many have pointed out, unsustainable.
In his attempts to find solutions to the team’s scoring problems Bruce has created issues at both ends of the pitch and recorded a widely varied set of xG results, see below:
At the time of writing (03/01/2020), Statsbomb’s xG model ranks Newcastle’s attack under Bruce as the worst in the league, creating just 17.7 xG for across 21 games. More worryingly, our defence is now 18th overall with 35.0 xG against (xGA), only West Ham 35.1xGA and Aston Villa 41.7xGA are worse.
It suggests that our current position of 13th in the table is unlikely to last. While it remains to be seen how far we’ll drop down the table, while Bruce struggles with his own version of Rafa’s short blanket and find a way to get the best out of Joelinton, anything could happen.
While I’m fairly confident that in a tight league we should be able to get the 15 more points we need to avoid relegation, a bad run and continued use of that AWFUL 5-3-2 could easily see us dragged into the mire and make it way too close for comfort.