Updated: Nov 24, 2020
It has been seventeen months since Rafa Benítez left Newcastle United and yet, here we are, forty-seven Premier League games later and still hearing his name used by pundits and journalists when discussing Steve Bruce.
Benítez is an emotive subject for a number of reasons but, removing sentiment from the discussion, the main issue for many Newcastle fans when his name is brought into conversations about Bruce is that this is surely his gig now and he should own it. Forty-seven games and seventeen months is long enough to stop bringing up a predecessor when analysing the current incumbent of a role.
However, we are repeatedly told that Newcastle has always played this way since promotion to the Premier League and that the low possession, negative setup began with Benítez and is merely being continued by Bruce. We are told that Benítez was lauded by fans as a tactical genius for this and that Bruce is harshly criticised for doing exactly the same thing. We are told to look at the league table, the points tally, the goals scored and recognise that the symmetry of these numbers is all the evidence we need to accept that what we are being told is true: for the last three seasons, Newcastle United has played this way in certain games. Same as it ever was.
As much as I would like to move on from Benítez comparisons and mentions, they don't show any signs of stopping, so I decided to look into it to see whether these pundits and journalists were right or whether there was hard evidence away from the soft emotions to prove them wrong.
After the Chelsea game saw yet another 'performance' with only 30% possession, I decided to look at all games in which Newcastle finished with 30% possession or less in the Premier League over the last three and a bit seasons. Did it really happen as much under Benítez? The mind plays tricks on you so I went to the place where bias and emotions do not exist - statistics.
30% possession or less happened 16 times in Rafa Benítez's 76 games in charge, or 21% of the time. So far under Steve Bruce, this has happened 12 times in 47 games in charge, or 26% of the time. A slight increase but nothing too remarkable, so were the pundits right? Had Newcastle always played this way since promotion and was my judgement clouded? Why did it feel so different last season (and this) to how it felt under Benítez?
I looked at a range of key areas from all of these games to break down the results and performances: goals scored; goals against; shots on target for; shots on target against; number of pressures; touches in own box; touches in defensive third; touches in attacking third; touches in opposition box and points won.
The number of touches in the four areas of the pitch showed little difference across the seasons. However, looking at touches in the opposition box across individual games showed that, under Benítez, Newcastle reached double figures in this category 63% of the time. Under Bruce, this happened 42% of the time but three of those were against West Ham, Brighton and Sheffield United, meaning that number dropped to just 22% against the bigger teams.
I looked across the three full seasons since promotion back to the Premier League and calculated a range of statistics to see whether there had been any change over that period or whether the pundits were correct and Newcastle had always played the same way in these particular games.
In 2017/18, Newcastle played 6 games with 30% possession or less and had the following average statistics, per game:
Goals for - 0.5
Goals against - 1.7
Shots on target for - 2.7
Shots on target against - 5.3
Number of pressures - 176
Points won - 0.5
In 2018/19, Newcastle played 10 games with 30% possession or less and had the following average statistics, per game:
Goals for - 0.9
Goals against - 1.6
Shots on target for - 3.3
Shots on target against - 4.6
Number of pressures - 228
Points won - 1.0
Although the number of occasions Newcastle surrendered possession had increased, the team had improved across all metrics. Newcastle were scoring more; conceding less; having more shots on target; facing fewer shots on target; pressuring the opposition more and, ultimately, had doubled the number of points won in these games.
In 2019/20, now under Bruce, Newcastle played 11 games with 30% possession or less and had the following average statistics, per game:
Goals for - 1.0
Goals against - 2.1
Shots on target for - 2.8
Shots on target against - 6.7
Number of pressures - 184
Points won - 1.0
The number of points won remained the same as the previous season and the number of goals scored increased slightly. Looking at these two statistics, it is easy to see why pundits could come to the conclusion that nothing has changed in Newcastle's approach to these games. Points are, ultimately, the most important thing to the owner of the club and a glance at the league table is the most accessible and simple analysis of performance. Same points and (almost) same goals scored. So what's the difference?
The difference lies in the other metrics analysed, which all show that Newcastle has regressed in their performances in these games. The team is conceding more goals, hitting the target less often, facing more shots on their own goal and pressuring the opposition less than they were in the 2018/19 season. Fans who watch every week notice these things and it is likely that this is why there is such a difference in how we view these games compared to the part-time, casual observer.
Most alarmingly, the team is facing more shots on target in these games than they were in 2017/18, as a newly-promoted side, and this number has increased a massive 46% from 2018/19 to 2019/20. Despite Newcastle's goalkeepers being at the top of saves charts for the last couple of seasons, logic dictates that this increase in the number of shots on target faced will eventually lead to more goals being conceded.
In the sixteen games under Benítez, Newcastle conceded 3 goals or more on three occasions, or 19% of the time. Under Bruce, this has happened five times in eleven games, or 46% of the time. Despite the points gained from these low possession games remaining the same, as a fan, it is harder to watch when the team is conceding at least three goals almost half of the time.
It is easier to buy into this approach against better teams if games are kept tight and you are in the contest. Looking at the defeats in these games, Newcastle were within one goal of their opponent 55% of the time under Benítez but only 14% under Bruce. Although the points per game is the same under both managers, when Newcastle lose these games under Bruce, they are not close affairs. If you're going to be so far out of reach of your opponent, then why take this 'damage-limitation' approach to a game?
As ever, analysing Bruce comes down to whether you view the points tally as the ultimate judgement. For the owner, this is undoubtedly the only one he is interested in as he seeks to protect his asset until it is sold. For this reason, as long as Bruce maintains par in this column, he will not be sacked. While Ashley remains, Newcastle United will never be more than their current form and many fans therefore pragmatically view the points tally as the only thing worth concerning themselves about until he is gone. Survive and wait for a takeover.
However, for anyone insisting on bringing Rafa Benítez's Newcastle United into conversations about Steve Bruce's Newcastle United, do not rewrite or blur history. The end result may be the same but look beyond the points tally and the goals column and nothing has remained the same from these low possession games.
Back then, it felt like a tactic that was limiting the opposition and keeping us in with a chance of getting something from a game and the statistics back that up. Now, no longer a newly-promoted team and with a better squad of players, it feels like a needlessly passive tactic allowing more shots on our goal and resulting in us regularly being out of reach of our opponent. Despite the same result in terms of points, the approach is certainly not the same as it ever was.