Newcastle United: 18 Months of Regression
Ahead of tonight’s game with Leeds United, the feeling of hopelessness that’s become synonymous with being a Newcastle United fan has truly set in again. Manifesting itself into player performances and managerial conduct, it’s taken none of the fans by surprise. A convincing defeat to bottom of the table Sheffield United, a laboured draw against the 10-men of relegation candidates Fulham and being outplayed by Brentford B in the last month alone have confirmed the belief that the majority the Toon Army have been vocal about for a long time: Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United are simply not good enough.
A run of ten games without a victory and just a solitary goal in our last eight matches has led to pundits begrudgingly acknowledging our plight. For many weeks now, we’ve heard how terrible we are to watch, how we pose no attacking threat and how our opponents have it too easy against us. But sure enough, within a few breaths of admitting these facts, the shortcomings are once again laid at anywhere but the manager’s door and the football world is told the same regurgitated drivel about ‘those unrealistic, deluded Geordies’.
A prime example of this appeared on Sky Sports’ analysis of Newcastle prior to the Arsenal game last week. Jamie Carragher alluded to the fact that Newcastle United were previously hammered by pundits for not being attacking in games under Rafa Benitez. “We all, as pundits, say there’s not much difference between Rafa and Steve Bruce. Now we’ve been on this show and we’ve been very critical of Rafa Benitez – certainly against Manchester City and Liverpool when they had twenty-odd percent possession – we’d say “can’t they attack more? This is Newcastle, be a bit more adventurous!” So we were critical of that.” He then proceeds to show the following comparison between the two managers.
Credit: Sky Sports
“In almost every category you look at, Newcastle are down”, Carragher continued. “So we’re talking about a team who we criticised for having a lack of adventure, being better than the team we’re seeing right now!” Therein lies the exact reason why the Newcastle fans are unhappy. There’s been a blatant, obvious regression under the new management.
We’re rightfully angry. We've finally been heard. Except we aren’t allowed to direct the same criticism at Steve Bruce that pundits levelled towards Rafa Benitez. We’re expected to be happy with the relapse under Steve Bruce, yet we were belittled and ridiculed for being happy with the identity and hope we had under Rafa. The irony appears to be lost on all except the Geordie nation.
As we have become accustomed to as Newcastle fans, all empirical evidence goes out of the window when discussing our frustrations. In response to Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville brought out a pundits’ favourite; “the unhappiness towards this manager is embedded just from the history rather than who he is or the job that he’s doing. Newcastle have got a cultural problem where the football expectation up there is attacking, enthralling, thrilling football.”
We hear it in different iterations every week. We’re entitled, we’re impatient, we need attacking football and we expect to be in Europe every season. Anything that doesn’t remind us of The Entertainers, showcasing local players and having us competing for trophies means we’re throwing our toys out the pram and unfairly criticising the manager. Except when Chris Hughton and Rafa Benitez were in charge, but this gets ignored as it doesn't fit the narrative.
Admittedly, our style of play has been much maligned by the majority of fans regardless of the manager in charge over the years, but this season in particular has seen dreadful performances on the pitch reach new lows. Ranking 20th for possession, 19th for shots, 19th for chances created, 19th for touches in the opposition box and 2nd for shots faced by the opposition, ‘Bruceball’ is endemic of a relegated football club.
“What more do Newcastle fans want?” shout Sutton, Savage, Redknapp, Keys and Hughes, goadingly pointing at the Premier League table and asserting that we belong in relegation scraps whilst the likes of Leicester City, Southampton and Leeds overshadow us. How dare we ask to compete with teams that have played in English football’s third tier during the Mike Ashley era?
The Difficult Second Album, Midfield Anonymity and Callum Wilson The football has been awful, but some fans were willing to give Steve Bruce a chance after his debut season. After all, he didn’t choose the circumstances of his hiring and he was inheriting a squad unfamiliar to him. The 2020/21 summer transfer window was viewed as a successful one by the majority of fans, meaning there were no excuses for the manager.
Since his appointment, new additions to the existing squad he inherited included Joelinton, Allan Saint-Maximin, Callum Wilson, Andy Carroll, Ryan Fraser, Jamal Lewis and Jeff Hendrick amongst others. The total outlay of transfers equated to roughly £100m, with around £70m of this being a net spend. It’s only natural to expect some tangible return on this investment in terms of an improvement to goals and attacking output. As demonstrated, this hasn’t been the case.
Not only do we score less, create less and see the ball less, we also appear to have developed a phobia for using the midfield as a means of progressing the ball. This season, our three most-used midfielders in the centre have been Isaac Hayden, Jonjo Shelvey and Jeff Hendrick. Isaac Hayden is a competent professional who knows his role, but he’s extremely limited. Jonjo Shelvey plays three good passes a season - enough to qualify him as our best creative midfielder and seemingly giving him license to amble around for the remaining 99% of the time - whilst Jeff Hendrick doesn’t appear to have any discernible strengths except camouflage. As a collective, they have offered next to nothing in terms retaining the ball or advancing it up the pitch.
The negativity has become so ingrained in these players that they spend the majority of the time afraid to stray too far from the familiarity of their own penalty box given the likelihood that they’ll be back there defending it in a blink. In essence, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We expect to be put under pressure, resulting in us sitting deep and inviting the pressure onto ourselves. This makes Newcastle United a dream to play against for opposition players because they often have the freedom and time to do whatever they please.
The only person who shows a more blatant disregard than the opposition for our midfield is the manager sat in our own dugout. It speaks volumes about the creative freedom our central midfielders have when bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United’s defensive midfielder Sander Berge poses a greater threat going forward than his Newcastle counterparts.
Without hyperbole, 33 year old Mohamed Diamé would walk straight back into this squad tomorrow and improve it. Whether we’re in possession of the ball or not, Steve Bruce’s modus operandi is to make sure that our midfield does as little work as humanly possible. As for the other midfielders at Steve Bruce’s disposal, they’re all vying for positions – some of which didn’t even exist until recently – in an increasingly-desperate and obvious game of “who might pull some magic out of their arse for me?”
So far in the Premier League this season, those appearing in midfield positions (Joelinton, Almiron, Saint-Maximin, Fraser, Shelvey, Hayden, Hendrick, Murphy, Ritchie and the Longstaffs) have spent a combined 8,420 minutes on the pitch – just over 140 hours between them. They’ve yielded just six goals. A rate that equates to just shy of one goal per day. Of these players, Jeff Hendrick has the most goals scored with two, which – considering the Irishman’s year has been spent predominantly in the Bermuda Triangle - is a damning indictment on the rest of the squad.
Yes, we have had injuries and there needs to be a certain degree of bedding in new players, but each week there is no evidence of any tactical consideration in addressing our blunt attack and a midfield that helps neither attack nor defence. Any time we are in danger of threatening the opposition goal and we manage to keep possession of the ball, it’s invariably because Karl Darlow has it again within ten seconds and our own penalty box becomes a summoning beacon to everybody except Callum Wilson.
Up front, Wilson has been a rare shining light in an otherwise dark season, leading both the scoring (8) and assist (3) charts for the club in the league. His quality is obvious, but it can’t be ignored that his involvement in games has been much less frequent recently. He has failed to score from open play in eight games; a run stretching back to November in a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace.
Comparing strikers of the clubs in and around ourselves, Callum Wilson has the fewest touches per 90mins and the joint-fewest shots per 90mins. Heralded as our best striker since Demba Ba, it’s a crime that he is being isolated more and more in each outing. Rather than receiving the ball anywhere around the box, he ends up chasing lost causes and holding up the ball against multiple defenders for the requisite time it takes for any support to come his way. His impressive conversion rate of 33% attests to the fact the he needs to be seeing the ball a lot more than he has been as of late, and that he's clearly feeding off scraps. Looking at the players supporting him for the last two months, it’s not difficult to see why.
The Saint-Maximin Effect
It is no coincidence that our worst runs in each of the last two seasons have coincided with the absence of Allan Saint-Maximin. Often accused of having more style than substance, the Frenchman is routinely portrayed as a luxury player who doesn’t justify the adulation he receives from fans. It’s only when you compare games in which the winger has started to those in which he hasn’t that his importance to the team becomes obvious:
Since his arrival at St. James’ Park in 2019, when Saint-Maximin starts a game he has proven to increase our goal scoring ability and the number of points we earn by more than double. With him, we are statistically almost four times as likely to win a game. In the 26 league games that Saint-Maximin hasn’t started, Steve Bruce has managed just three victories. Three. Furthermore, in these 26 matches, we’ve actually failed to score in 12 of them – a massive 46%. Some will point to his goals and assists tallies and say that Allan Saint-Maximin doesn’t do enough, particularly in the current season. Whilst it’s true that his goal involvement numbers remain unspectacular, the 23 year old is actually involved in goals at a greater rate this year (202mins per g/a) than he was last year (267mins per g/a). His strength, though, has always been in advancing the ball up the pitch and forcing the opposition to commit when others daren’t. As a result, this naturally increases our shooting opportunities. As mentioned, Callum Wilson has struggled for opportunities as of late. He holds a season average of 1.5 shots per 90mins. With Allan on the pitch, however, this increases to 2.3 – more than a 50% increase. Saint-Maximin’s ability to do the unexpected forces the opposition to make special dispensations for him, and in this way it means Newcastle become less one dimensional and harder to defend against as a whole. No other player in the Newcastle squad warrants this consideration from an opposition perspective. In terms of ability, nobody else comes close. So whilst his personal numbers may not blow anybody away, it is his undeniable positive effect on one of the most negative Newcastle United teams in history which is why he has achieved cult-hero status on Tyneside already. It’s more than just fancy, superficial dribbling that we’re attracted to. It is his desire to take it to the opposition. To go a little rogue and not be content with being on the back foot. To believe that he’s able to beat the odds and do it with a smile on his face. In this way, he is the embodiment of everything Newcastle fans want the football to be.
The Next Chapter
It is looking increasingly likely that Steve Bruce will not be bolstering the playing squad with any additions in the January transfer window and that he will remain in charge for the remainder of the season. One can only assume that he’s happy with the players at his disposal, because managers at Newcastle United are expected to dip into their pockets and pay for transfers out of their own money if they aren’t. Assuming a lack of arrivals, the next chapter looks pretty bleak given the rut that we are in and the upcoming fixtures.
For the rest of the 2020/21 campaign – as it has been throughout the entirety of Bruce’s tenure - ‘Plan A’ is to rely on individual brilliance of players to get us points we don’t deserve. Whether that be the goalkeepers, Allan Saint-Maximin or Callum Wilson, the entire squad will continue to lean on the performances of a select few because the manager simply cannot mould a cohesive team despite years of playing together and £100m worth of investment. ‘Plan B’ remains getting lucky with set-pieces, penalties, VAR and refereeing decisions.
Failing this, our fate lies in the hands of a manager who appears to have lost the little respect he had from his players, and who is now more concerned with winning battles and scoring points against fans whom, mercifully for Bruce, aren’t able to attend matches. If only he showed the same desire to win battles and score points on the pitch, he may not have found himself in his current position. However, any plan which relies on the tactical nous and sensible substitutions of Steve Bruce means we may as well already be preparing for a season in the Championship.
Credit: Sky Sports
We have all seen it coming a mile away. We have been incredibly lucky to not be in the relegation zone for the last 18 months. Our goalkeepers have put in heroic performances on numerous occasions whilst underserving goals in our favour have polished the turd that is Bruceball. As our current run is proving, however, it is unsustainable. To have had such a wanton disregard in his shortcomings for so long is tantamount to fraud. Steve Bruce is no longer a Premier League manager in any way, other than his job title. He is a glorified P.E. teacher who has dropped the baton that was handed to him and then passive-aggressively shouted about what a good job he is doing whilst running the wrong way with it.
“What more do Newcastle fans want?” his friends laugh, “He’s trying his best!”
To have somebody facing the right direction would be a damn good start.