There has been little to get excited about during the Steve Bruce era. The performances have been mostly poor, while the takeover malaise continues to increase the apathy on Tyneside.
For all of Bruce’s flaws, he deserves credit for finding value in Jacob Murphy. The former Norwich City player was a major signing for Rafa Benitez during the summer of 2017. However, he failed to make much of an impact during his two seasons under the previous manager.
Murphy played a total of 1,130 Premier League minutes in his two seasons under Benitez. He contributed a goal and two assists during this period. The majority of supporters didn’t think he was good enough for the top-flight.
He went away on loan to Sheffield Wednesday in the 2019/20 season and it led to a sharp improvement in his consistency. Bruce’s doubters would suggest this loan spell led to Murphy’s emergence as a Premier League player rather than good coaching from the Newcastle manager.
During this loan spell, he contributed nine goals and four assists in the Championship. More importantly, Wednesday played Murphy as a wing-back. That is the role he has impressed in during 2021.
Below, we will take a closer look into Murphy’s performances, discussing whether he is now a Premier League quality wing-back or an out of position winger.
He carries a real attacking threat
Source – Jacob Murphy Scouting Report | FBref.com vs. Full Backs
The above numbers taken from FBRef (powered by Statsbomb) show Murphy’s shooting statistics. The 24-year-old ranks highly compared to other full-backs across Europes top five divisions.
Unsurprisingly for a converted winger, he excels in the final third Murphy likes to get forward to join attacks from wing-back and shoot.
He averages 1.65 shots per ninety minutes and 0.14 goals per ninety minutes and he has shown the finishing ability to overperform his average xG of 0.07 per ninety minutes, lifting him into the 91st percentile for goalscoring full-backs.
The main issue with Murphy’s shooting is that it is speculative. He has an average shot distance is 23.1 yards and only 31.4% of his shots find. the target. Although he has the skill to score from range, he can be wasteful when he finds himself in promising positions.
The above below show Murphy’s shot maps. The left shows this season so far. As it is a small sample size, we have added all his EPL appearances at full-back to provide greater context.
He has scored three goals, but only one has come from outside of the penalty area – which was a freekick against Wolves.
Murphy needs to make better decisions in these areas. The odd shot from range is useful and can result in a goal or clear chance. However, too many can lead to the team wasting promising positions.
When in the half-space, Murphy would be better off trying to lay the ball out wide to a teammate on the right or recycle possession to the left and break into the box. His goal against West Ham on the opening day of the season shows the threat he can carry when entering the box.
High risk/reward passing
Murphy’s preference for direct or riskier passes is highlighted in the graphic below. While Newcastle’s players generally rate badly for passing – as we typically struggle to even match our opponents for possession – Murphy rates in the bottom 5% among full-backs for many of these metrics and that’s a worry.
The most worrying stat above is that Murphy completes just 68% of his passes. This rates him in the fourth percentile among full-backs. One reason for this low percentage may be that he is aggressive in possession rather than taking the safe decision.
Murphy’s average of 23.28 completed passes per ninety minutes is low – for context, Matt Ritchie (operating in the same role) completes 29.68. This indicates that Murphy is less involved in the general build-up play with more focus on getting into attacking areas.
He has an excellent crossing ability from these areas, best shown by his assist for Dwight Gayle’s winning goal against West Brom last season. It was a difficult delivery to get right, but he has the technique to create big chances from these positions.
The former Norwich City player rates in the top quarter among full-backs for assists (0.19), xA (0.14) and passes into the penalty area (1.51), all per ninety. xA is shorthand for expected assists, this is the value given to a pass based on the expected goal (xG) value of the resulting shot.
These are further examples of Murphy’s quality in the attacking half of the pitch. However, the question is whether that is best utilised as a winger or wing-back.
At a glance, the amount of green in the above image suggests there is nothing to worry about. However, when you apply some context to the data, there are some clear issues.
As previously mentioned, Steve Bruce’s Newcastle team don’t enjoy a great deal of possession and spend more time defending than most, so while Murphy’s passing stats are negatively impacted by this it also gives him more opportunities to boost his defensive output.
His average of 3.91 tackles and interceptions per ninety minutes is an area that is clearly boosted by this, but even so, it shows that Murphy has developed skill as a proficient ball-winner now he’s playing a deeper role.
Murphy’s athleticism helps him average 19.08 pressures per game, putting him in the top 2% percentile among full-backs. however, with a successful pressure rate of just 26.7% that aggressive energy is often misplaced and can cause issues.
As a wing-back, Murphy’s heat map is interesting. When going forward, he prefers to operate outside of the penalty area. He doesn’t look to overlap often, with his preference to hover deeper on the flank.
He tries to engage with opposition players before they reach the penalty area, meaning that Murphy can be overly aggressive at times and dive in when it isn’t required.
This was also seen in the opening day defeat to West Ham, as he conceded a penalty with a rash challenge in the box. Although it can be argued it was a harsh call, the choice to lunge while in the penalty area will always leave a defender vulnerable.
As seen above, Murphy has issues in the air. He averages just 0.28 successful aerial duels per ninety minutes. Meanwhile, his success rate of 20% in aerial duels ranks him among the worse full-backs in the top-5 leagues across Europe.
This is a huge weakness that will be targeted. Matt Ritchie on the other flank wins 40.8% of his aerial duels – another converted winger – has managed to find some ability to compete aerially. With both playing, Newcastle will be susceptible to crosses from either wing as we saw against Southampton.
Taking everything into account, it is a net positive that Murphy is a Newcastle United player. Although it took him a while to make an impact in the Premier League, he is now performing well in the division.
To put up the attacking numbers he has from wing-back shows his quality in the final third, though there remain questions about his decision making, especially in terms of his preference to shoot from range.
However, we need players that aren’t afraid to take responsibility on the pitch. Murphy will be willing to put a cross in or take a shot and won’t be negative when he gets the ball in forward areas.
The worries about his pressing style probably mean he shouldn’t be used as a wing-back. Murphy has the physical attributes, attacking quality and improving defensive skills to develop into a good Premier League wing-back.
That said, that will never happen under the current coaching setup. The pressing approach isn’t thought through. Murphy may have the energy to press, but too often, he is doing so alone and that makes him a liability. He leaves space behind for opposition teams to exploit when playing as a wing-back.
Javier Manquillo returned to the team against Manchester United. Despite his goal, he isn’t the attacking force that Murphy is. However, he is a much more assured defender in his positioning and decision making.
Under Bruce, Murphy should be seen as a forward player. If he did ever move to a four-man defence, a 4-2-3-1 would look to be a good fit for the squad.
Allan Saint-Maximin and Murphy on the flanks. Miguel Almiron in the number ten role. Manquillo and Jamal Lewis supporting from full-back. The pace and energy in that team would make the team exciting to watch.
Murphy has benefited from the current formation, but he is still operating out of position. His qualities lie in the attacking third. We should let him operate there without the extra defensive responsibility.