Updated: Oct 19, 2020
"Can you not explain that to supporters, what we are trying to do? I just find it deeply frustrating, this thing about a lack of direction. The style is a concern? The style is we’re going from a back five to a back four, with one off the front. What do you not understand? If you’ve watched us, what do you not understand about what we are trying to do? I think that would be pretty obvious."
Football is a results business, right? Ultimately, nothing else matters and that is why managers are hired and fired based on the points column of the league table. Well, this is undoubtedly true for the majority of football club owners protecting their asset, but what about football fans? If your team isn't challenging for the title and isn't in the relegation zone, is football really all about results?
To fans, does it matter whether you finish 13th or 15th if the football is largely unenjoyable? This season, with no sense of the occasion due to our continued absence from football grounds, does a cup run have the same value as it would have normally? Unless we go on to win it, does it really matter that we've reached the quarter-final of a tournament we won't be able to witness in person?
Nobody wants to lose football matches but, as long as you're not being relegated, does seeing progress and development matter more? Does believing there is a process and an identity offer fans greater hope of what awaits us when we are allowed to return to our seats? What do we want to see from our team and, in his second season, what should our manager be judged on?
Following the majority of Newcastle United games this season, there have been Tweets and articles written about instant and over reaction so early in the season. The club is mid-table and in the quarter-finals of a cup! What more do we want? However, away from the instant character-limited thoughts of social media, there is an increasing section of the fanbase who are looking at the bigger picture. Away from the hot takes, highlights and hubris there is consideration of the process, plan and development over the longer term.
The Newcastle United of 2019/20 saw the defensive philosophy of his predecessor often used by some fans to counter any praise of Steve Bruce's moderate success while simultaneously being used by Bruce himself as a reason his particular monster could not be more beautiful. We were told he wanted to be more expressive and attacking but that the players were so drilled into their previous ways that it would take time. Brief attempts to move away from it proved disastrous as a Frankenstein Newcastle lost heavily away at Leicester and have, overall, now conceded three goals or more in 11 of the 43 Premier League games under Bruce.
In football, you often hear pleas for reason such as ‘judge me after ten games’, ‘judge me after a transfer window’ or ‘judge me after a whole season’. Well, after a whole season, two pre-seasons plus a mid-season lockdown break, three transfer windows and forty-three league games it feels like an acceptable time to judge.
My judgement is not based on often-used screenshots of Bruce’s place in the Premier League win percentage gutter alongside Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce, nor is it based on him not being Rafa Benitez nor any of the other well-used sticks that he is beaten with. My judgement is based on the absence of an obvious process, the absence of a coherent formation / tactic and the absence of consistent development. There have been successes but narrow victories over Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham last season were wafer thin paper over increasingly deep cracks.
"We’ve played a certain way for a few years, which I’ve always said I would like to change."
Although Newcastle finished 13th (the same position as the previous year) underlying numbers showed a notable decline. In terms of expected goals, the team had the second-worst attack and third-worst defence in the league in the 2019/20 season. This is a defence that finished both the 2017/18 and the 2018/19 season as seventh best in the Premier League and this resilient accolade was lost without the reward of improved attacking prowess.
Last season, out of the twenty Premier League teams, Newcastle United scored the fourth-fewest goals, had the fourth-fewest shots on target, created the fourth-fewest chances, had the lowest average possession and had the fewest touches in the opposition box. There was no evidence of progress towards a more attacking identity. Relying on a sufficient number of other teams to be worse or less fortunate than you is not a long-term strategy for remaining in the Premier League.
Newcastle vs Opponents
Shots on target: 127 vs 190
Shot-creating actions: 583 vs 906
Touches in attacking third: 4327 vs 8463
Progressive carries distance: 34435 vs 56444
Average pass completion: 74% vs 84%
Something has to change but it is difficult to see where that change and improvement might come from within the current setup, that has already been in place for sixteen months. What is Bruce’s process? What is his plan? What is the identity of this Newcastle United team? Where is our development over his forty-three games in the Premier League? This season has started in similar fashion to last:
2020/21 season so far
Newcastle vs Opponents
Shots on target: 11 vs 33
Shot-creating actions: 73 vs 134
Touches in attacking third: 590 vs 960
Progressive carries distance: 4432 vs 6879
Average pass completion: 74% vs 81%
"It is a work in progress for us. We have tried to change and with that it will take time."
All football teams are a work in progress and all development takes time but how long does Bruce want before 'trying to change' results in actual change? Despite his incessant references to how the team played before his arrival, this is his team now and he has had sufficient time to change it into whatever it is that he wants it to be.
Newcastle now have Callum Wilson, Allan Saint-Maximin, Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis - all of these players are improvements on the team that Bruce inherited. There are several quick, exciting supporting players available to select behind a natural goal scorer. The players are there to make Newcastle a more attacking team and yet we have not scored a goal from open play in three of our five league games so far this season.
We do not even have the residual defensive stability from his predecessor as Newcastle have already conceded three goals or more in two league games and, without Karl Darlow and the woodwork, this statistic could easily have been three games. Dubravka topped the Premier League saves charts last season and Darlow is following on this unwanted trend.
Any notion that Newcastle are set up as a low possession team relying on counter attacks is not represented by statistics. Matty Longstaff with a total of 1 is the only player credited with a goal from a counter attack last season. In fact, only 21 total shots came from counter attacks over the entire Premier League season. So what are we? We don't retain possession and we don't counter attack so what is our offensive plan?
A simple observation from anyone watching us this season is that getting the ball to Allan Saint-Maximin and hoping he does something extraordinary is the extent of our attacking identity. It is equally evident that teams have figured this out and now take turns kicking him out of the game until the threat is nullified.
For all the sympathetic encouragement when Joelinton passes to a teammate this season, he has 0 goals, 0 assists, 1 shot on target and has delivered 2 crosses and yet he was played out wide yesterday instead of an in-form Ryan Fraser. Our central midfield offers almost nothing when in possession and carries neither the ball nor a threat, yet Miguel Almirón has started only one of our five league games.
33% of Newcastle's total passes this season have been long balls and we all know the infamous statistics regarding shots on target over those opening three fixtures. Despite arguably the deepest attacking options in recent years, Newcastle remains a largely ineffective team with the ball.
"I thought we were a little bit too easy at times to play against."
Newcastle are an easy team to play against. Although a competent possession-based side, we made Brighton look like Barcelona. Only 17% of Newcastle’s total attempted pressures for the 2019/20 season were in their attacking third. Contrast this to Newcastle's opponents, who averaged 27% of pressures in their attacking third. In other words, Newcastle were easy to play against for any team that wanted to play out from the back as minimum pressure would be applied to their defenders when on the ball.
Against Burnley this season, Newcastle's biggest league win and arguably best performance, 28% of Newcastle's pressures were in their attacking third. Last night, against an opponent with a questionable defence that had just conceded six, we returned to a passive approach with just 19% of pressures in our attacking third. Maguire and Shaw's fragile confidence was never given the opportunity to shatter.
"When you play against the big teams the one thing that you have to understand is you can't just take them on in terms of matching them up. They may have better players than you so you have to do something tactically to ruffle them a little bit."
Newcastle United vs Manchester United
Possession: 36% - 64%
Total shots: 7 - 28
Corners: 0 - 6
Passes in opposition half: 92 - 296
Long balls: 63 - 47
Newcastle United vs Tottenham
Possession 34% - 66%
Total shots: 6 - 23
Corners: 4 -10
Passes in opposition half: 108 - 367
Long balls: 64 - 46
If that is ruffling, I don't know what to say. This narrative that we can't take on the big teams takes on an even greater level of unnecessary, self-defeating negativity when you glance around the chaotic nature of the 2020/21 season's results. Aston Villa beat Liverpool 7-2, Leeds scored 3 at Anfield, Southampton scored 3 at Stamford Bridge and Crystal Palace won 3-1 at Old Trafford. Why does a Newcastle United side have to play as though they are a lower league side when facing these teams and what is this 'something different tactically' that we are apparently trying against them? Again, what are we?
If I could see that we were trying to play out from the back, retain possession, build attacks through transition and phases and making progress in developing towards this identity then I could take the odd heavy defeat as an inevitable bump in the road to where we were trying to end up. However, I see no progress; no development; no process and no identity. We are forty-three games in and I don't know what Steve Bruce is trying to achieve with this team.
What do you not understand? If you’ve watched us, what do you not understand about what we are trying to do? I think that would be pretty obvious."
The only obvious thing about this Newcastle United team is that fortune is not a sustainable blueprint for success. You can not survive a whole season with your goalkeeper setting records for saves; your team scoring 3 goals from 3 shots on target; the opposition hitting the woodwork; scoring penalties as the opposition's are saved and your mercurial midfielder producing individual magic. Whatever luck and good fortune we used against Spurs was empty by last night and the different scores reflected that, from largely similar performances.
Going forward, Newcastle need to end this Frankenstein period of neither being a defensive monster nor an attacking beast. This halfway hybrid is heading for an avoidable disaster and no consolation will be taken from assurances of being a work in progress. No team should still be in the middle of an identity crisis after forty-three league games together and whatever your predecessor did or did not do is no longer relevant when they have been gone for sixteen months.
The manager is fortunate that St. James' Park was empty as the full-time whistle sounded against both Brighton and Manchester United. However, those fans are watching on from home and assessing what awaits them when they are allowed to return to their seats. If what the team is trying to do still needs explaining to them by that point, it will be a very different kind of monster troubling Bruce.