After two full seasons at Newcastle United, Steve Bruce has had over 736 days as head coach to lay down his tactical mark, and cement his long-term vision for the first team. Although the spine of the team is relatively unchanged, the fact Newcastle have ended their two campaigns under Bruce in 13th then 12th shows that there is stability from the recruitment department, which has enabled Bruce to succeed in his objective of Premier League survival, as well as try out different formations and alter tactics to considerable success.
System of play: 3-5-2 and 4-1-2-1-2
When Graeme Jones joined Steve Bruce’s coaching team, he arrived from Bournemouth, and with previous experiences working with the tactical minded Roberto Martinez. Jones gained managerial experience with Luton Town where he preferred deploying a 4-1-2-1-2 as written brilliantly by Daryl Dao on his personal blog: https://darylgouilard.medium.com/luton-town-the-contrast-in-their-xg-and-xga-under-graeme-jones-bfef.The impact was immediate, as Bruce fielded a 4-1-2-1-2 against Everton with uncanny similarities to Jones’ Luton Town tactics. Graeme Jones on his first professional match with the team, at times looked like the head coach, shouted instructions from the touch line and delivered tactical information as he orchestrated Newcastle to their first win of the new year. Off the ball pressing became more common and the strikers would split wide to allow the attacking midfielder to push high up. However, there wasn’t any notable changes in the way Newcastle defend, the low block and tuck in system still remained and likely will remain prominent when associating defensive tactics.
What is a low block?
The low block is a defensive system where the players defend very deep in their own territory and restrict the space for opposition players to exploit. It is a more static form of defense, as there is not much movement compared to a team playing with high pressing intensity.
When under pressure, whether Newcastle are defending in a back 3 or a back 4 Newcastle's wing-backs will tuck in and defend the half-space, the midfielders along the more physical, the clunkier striker will drop deep and defend the half-spaces and central area, with one attacker (mainly Callum Wilson) staying forward.
Newcastle were 4th last season for defensive 3rd pressures which meant they applied pressure on the opposition ball carrier, receiver or the person releasing the ball. This statistic shows that Newcastle are proactive when defending their goal, by looking to defuse attacking situations or working on the transition. However, on the flipside to this, Newcastle only retained possession for 38.2% of their matches and sit second from bottom for total touches with a staggering 55% of those touches coming from defensive areas of the pitch.
With Jonjo Shelvey being the only established passer in Newcastle's midfield, on his day the vision and passing range are one of the best in the league but he lacks mobility, and the work rate to position himself in the right places at all times.
Alternatively, Newcastle will use their goalkeeper or their wing-backs to work the transition from the wide areas, where they would look to release the raw pace and dribbling talent of Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron.
Off The Ball Pressing & Dead Balls
Against certain opposition, Newcastle would proactively press the opposition when the ball is being played between the defenders, more notably when Newcastle lined up in a 4-1-2-1-2 narrow the front three would split wide with Almiron pushing up the furthest to press the player with the ball and the two strikers would look to press the receiver or cut off the passing lane.
This is to draw the direction of the ball to through the centre, where supporting midfielders in Joe Willock/Jonjo Shelvey will push up to man-mark possible targets and assert a transition in play. However, the gaps left in midfield areas create problems as the wing-backs tend to not tuck in and fill the holes.
From observations, Newcastle are a passive side and they generally will set up to frustrate any opposition that they come up against. The statistics on the number of fouls and the use of set pieces suggest that Newcastle are good at being frustrating and that frustration leads to a player being fouled, the biggest successors in winning fouls are Allan Saint-Maximin, Miguel Almiron and Callum Wilson, which makes sense as these players are the most threatening at the club.
An example of this is last season Newcastle scored 46 goals (incl own goals) and 16 from dead ball situations (penalty/free kicks/corner kicks) which mounts to 34.7% of their total goals. In order for these to be achieved Newcastle have to be fouled often, and last season they were the 6th most fouled club in the Premier League.
Further statistics from FBref.com indicate that Newcastle put up high numbers from shots taken from dead ball situations. Their dead ball conversion was impressive, for example scoring 6 out of 7 attempted penalties with Callum Wilson scoring 4, Joelinton and Fabian Schar with 1 each and Willock missing 1. proving that his acquisition was a smart piece of business. As well as mounting 24 shots at goal from free kicks, the 2nd most in the PL.
What to expect for next season
The argument often given by Bruce for lack of consistency was due to not having his strongest XI available. Against Leicester City last season was the closest thing that we’ve seen to a strongest XI to date and it was undeniably impressive, well rounded with pace, physicality and experience, but was lacking a destroyer in Hayden.
The assumption is that when everyone is fully fit, a 4-2-3-1 formation with Fraser on the Left, Almiron in the middle, ASM on the Right and Wilson up top with Hayden and Shelvey in a double pivot theoretically sounds like it would be a success. But, with reoccurring injuries to key players, it feels like a constant struggle keeping everyone fit at the same time.
Last season was a slow start for Ryan Fraser, plagued by injuries and often played out of position when was fit. At Bournemouth during the 18/19 season, Fraser and Wilson were statistically the best duo in the Premier League for over two decades totalling a number of 12 goals that they created for each other, one less than the SAS partnership for Blackburn. Regardless of formation, they found a way to make it work, and were that spark to reignite along with the other creative attackers in the team, Newcastle would have one of the most electrifying frontlines in the league.
With Bruce setting up his teams to primarily drop deep without the ball will prevent Newcastle from regularly playing higher up the pitch as too much possession is conceded. The 3-5-2 has been the formation that Bruce has been trying to cement since the start of his tenure, so this will likely return and will be the system Bruce will keep working on until he feels confident enough to permanently move away from the 5-4-1.