Updated: Nov 27, 2020
'...don't expect to see much of the ball at the feet of the home side. Yes, I'm onto you, with your unrealistic expectations...I don't see Newcastle getting anything out of this one.'
It was hardly the boldest of predictions in my match preview for Newcastle vs Chelsea and my other 'hot take' - that Karl Darlow's gloves would touch the ball more times than Callum Wilson's feet - also proved depressingly accurate, although not the way I had in mind.
I spent the subsequent couple of days trawling through statistics of Newcastle's many games (26% of Bruce's total league games in charge) with 30% possession or less and confirmed that my eyes hadn't been lying to me. The numbers showed that, whether this passive setup is intentional or not, Newcastle are conceding multiple goals and rarely ending the game within one goal of their opponent. If it is intentional, it isn't working. If it isn't intentional, why does it keep happening?
I tried to console myself with the fact that Chelsea are far beyond our reach in terms of ambition, investment and talent but then realised that three of these sub-30% possession games under Bruce had been against West Ham, Sheffield United and Brighton. For context, the 2014/15 to 2015/16 period - managed by the unholy trinity of Pardew-Carver-McClaren - saw Newcastle have just one game with 30% possession or less.
A glance at the upcoming fixtures list, for any Premier League team in their fourth consecutive season around midtable, would provide optimism and offer hope of a successful run. Away trips to a Zaha-less Crystal Palace and an Aston Villa team that barely survived last season, followed by consecutive games against the three newly-promoted sides (two of which currently sit in the relegation zone).
However, this is Newcastle United: this stagnant, sterile, shell of a club that refuses to progress. The lack of ambition and confidence in this club; this staff; this team and this fanbase has seeped into every pore. They may only be polite, kind words but hearing the manager describe every opponent as a very good team and a tough game is a far cry from the inspirational quotes of the past, which rejected the notions of consolidation and settling.
There is a suffocating blanket of negativity around Newcastle United Football Club and, although it has been thrown on by Mike Ashley, it is being held tightly around the football team by Steve Bruce.
Mike Ashley is the reason this club will never progress beyond survival / mid-table but he does not pick the team or the tactics and he does not give the press conferences. Friday will be Steve Bruce's 48th Premier League game in charge of Newcastle and, excluding games against 'The Big Six', we have won 11 out of 33.
Take away those highlight-grabbing scalps against Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham and Newcastle United has won one third of its games against its peers in 'The Other 14'. We do not expect to beat those six teams - it is a welcome surprise when we do - but is it an unreasonable expectation to think that we ought to be capable of beating those around us more often?
Wins against West Ham, Burnley and Everton from our opening six against 'The Other 14' is above last season's rate but does not appear to have increased confidence as we approach this rather kind-looking run. Many social media pages asking for points total predictions have been greeted with negative responses rather than optimism.
How are fans of Newcastle United looking at Palace, Villa, West Brom, Leeds and Fulham as five fixtures of tentative hope (at best) rather than expectation? These are not fans whose standards remain in the Keegan / Robson halcyon days but fans who have been relegated twice in eleven years. We are realists now, not fantasists. Yet, surely, even as realists we ought to be entering this festive period with positive anticipation and an expectation of success?
How many individuals from those five teams would you take ahead of Newcastle's strongest eleven individuals? Despite a couple of weak areas (central midfield and right back) the issue is not recent recruitment. The issue is the collective mindset and approach of the playing and coaching staff. There seems to be an unnecessary fog of doubt and trepidation settling over the pitch whenever we take to it.
In the Sir Bobby days, I remember my Dad would often say, 'Release the hounds!' when Bernard, Lua Lua and Ameobi would come on as subs in the second half. This wasn't necessarily an endorsement of the individuals but a recognition that Newcastle were 'going for it'. Why, with the likes of Saint-Maximin, Almirón, Fraser, Wilson at our disposal are we yet to see the current side 'go for it'? We're not quite at, 'Attack! Attack' levels of desperation but come on, man! Get into them! They're shite!
Onto this week and as we hastily wall-mount a 70" flat screen, freshly wrestled from the cold dead hands of an adversary in a Black Friday death match, the Newcastle squad travels daan saaf to face Crystal Palace in the Amazon Prime(time) evening slot. The first of these favourable five fixtures sees us take on a Palace side that lost at Burnley on Monday night and continue to be without Wilfried Zaha. The Ivorian's importance to their success can not be underestimated. In fact, since he joined them in 2014, Palace have lost 71% of Premier Leagues they have played without him.
Interestingly, the two clubs have played similar opponents with very different results. Both teams have already faced Manchester United, Southampton, Everton, Chelsea, Brighton, Wolves and Burnley this season. That Palace beat Manchester United and Southampton but lost to Everton and Burnley (the opposite results to Newcastle) says everything about the unpredictable and chaotic nature of the 2020/21 season so far.
Bruce, still seemingly hamstrung by his long-departed predecessor, has so far been unable to transform Newcastle into the forward-thinking four at the back he so desires. With Palace not exactly blessed with attacking potency, it would be nice to see him have the courage of his convictions and abandon the five at the back which was so ineffective in limiting Chelsea's forward players. In fact, when has it ever been effective? Why aren't Newcastle playing a back four and allowing the extra place to go to one of their midfield or attacking players? The man keeps telling us he wants to be more adventurous - well, come on then!
At some point, Newcastle United needs to set out from kick-off with the belief that they are the better team and impose themselves on the opposition. James McArthur and Jairo Riedewald do not offer the same test as Mount, Kante and Kovacic. Put two in the middle, with Almirón just ahead of them and take control of that area of the pitch. Play your wingers wide (revolutionary, I know!) and get the ball into Wilson. Oh, and back your defence to deal with Batshuayi (0 goals) and Ayew (1 goal). Hey, they may even play Benteke, who has 3 goals in two and a half seasons.
I just want to feel like Newcastle are favourites to win a Premier League game and, more importantly, see that the players believe that. We all need it!
Away from statistics and records, the most concerning thing of all is the increasingly widespread apathy amongst the fanbase. Twitter was filled with comments about walking the dog rather than watching the Chelsea game. We all have stories about our obsession necessitating the neglect of other areas of our lives - my Dad used to plan family holidays and works shifts around Newcastle games and I got married on a Wednesday to not interfere with weekend fixtures. This was the way for thousands and thousands of fans and yet we now find ourselves in a position where watching Newcastle United has become increasingly optional.
Our habitual routines on match days have been broken and we need inspired and motivated to maintain this quasi-relationship with our distant partner. I am two miles from St. James' Park and yet Newcastle United has never felt so far away - and I've lived in Sydney. Thursday morning's press conference was, as ever, not the place to go to find this inspiration and motivation.
"Our last three games, the team we played against could have gone top of the league."
So what? Two of those teams were Everton and Southampton, Steve. We were only two points behind Southampton when we played them. Can we please just stop this needless self-deprecation to paint ourselves as the plucky underdog against 'The Other 14'? Palace could go level on points with sixth - well, guess what, Newcastle could go level on points with 8th!
The crowd can't inspire this group of players and, in the least surprising news of the year, we were told this morning that the North East has been rewarded for its low infection rate with being placed in Tier 3 for the foreseeable future. So the inspiration needs to come from someone else. Somebody needs to lift this group of players and ultimately lift this fanbase, whose lives have just been indefinitely put on hold, and it has to come from within.
"We haven't played well enough. We accept that and move on."
No, you haven't, but have you ever played consistently well enough? This team stumbles and splutters its way to survival with surprise victories and fortune rather than cohesive quality. So while you're moving on, play Saint-Maximin on the wing and Almirón in an advanced central role and let them do their thing. Get another wide player out on the touchline and keep Jeff Hendrick well away from there. Get the ball into the box for Wilson to do what he does and finish chances - the team had six total touches in Southampton's box in ninety minutes! Use that attacking left back you now have at your disposal to get up the pitch instead of sitting in as part of the deepest backline in the league.
Give us something to get excited about and change our outlook on these five fixtures, please! Liverpool and Manchester City come soon enough but, howay man, for now...
RELEASE THE HOUNDS!