There has been a change in the media narrative when discussing Newcastle United this season. There seems to be positivity about the job that Steve Bruce is doing at St. James’ Park.
It was a difficult environment to walk into during the summer, but he has taken the club to mid-table security (for now) and the FA Cup 5th Round. He is the first manager of the Mike Ashley era to get to that stage of the competition, which underlines the lack of ambition previously shown by the businessman.
This represents a huge change from last season. There was often furore among pundits regarding the style implemented by Rafa Benitez. It was seen as too negative and it made games between Newcastle and the top clubs a very sobering watch. The Spaniard knew that if he set up too openly, his limited set of players would be ripped apart. Bruce has arguably taken on an even more defensive style this season, but he is praised for it.
That said, supporters aren’t impressed by the current manager and there have been calls on social media for a more progressive style to be implemented. The defensive style can be tolerated against the better teams. However, Bruce has lined up with a back five against Oxford United (twice) and Norwich City in previous weeks. Although Newcastle don’t have the most talented squad, they should have the tools to take the game to both of these teams.
During the Norwich City game, the back five didn’t even mean that Newcastle restricted the visitors. The Understat expected goals (xG) metric showed that the ‘Canaries’ created 2.40 xG during the game, while the hosts created 0.93 xG. It was a very poor performance and Bruce was lucky to see his team get a point, due to poor finishing and another good goalkeeping display from Martin Dubravka.
Since that game, things have not improved. After a 4-0 loss away to Arsenal on Valentine’s weekend, Newcastle were again in London on Saturday taking on Crystal Palace. Despite keeping the score line more respectable this time, again much in thanks to their goalkeeper, the underlying stats paint a grim picture. Crystal Palace’s xG was measured at 1.75, whereas Newcastle United’s was a paltry 0.16.
Taking the season as a whole, Newcastle have an xG created of 21.38, which is the worst of any team in the Premier League. They have scored 24 times. Meanwhile, they have an xG conceded of 50.76, despite only conceding 41 times. Only Aston Villa, West Ham United and Norwich City have worse defensive records by this metric. The huge difference between the xG conceded and the actual total underlines the huge value of Dubravka, who continues to perform admirably between the sticks.
During Benitez’s final season, there was a similar over-achievement in terms of xG. The ‘Magpies’ had an xG created of 39.91 and an xG conceded of 57.55. On the pitch, they scored 42 times and conceded 48 times. In terms of the rest of the competition, Newcastle were ranked as the 18th best attack and 11th best defence.
Bruce can be forgiven for the decline in attack. Unlike Benitez, he can’t call upon Ayoze Perez and Saloman Rondon. The pair contributed 23 goals and nine assists in the Premier League last season. However, the manager did approve of the summer signings, with Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin expected to fill that void. The latter has made a big impact, but the former remains the biggest issue for the current Magpies boss.
Joelinton has scored only one Premier League goal, but that is one more than any other striker in the squad. It is a deplorable record for a £40 million striker, but he hasn’t been helped by the negative style encouraged by Bruce. He is often given little support and has to drop deep to get involved in the play. For a young striker in a new country, it was always going to be a difficult task. Further to learning a new league, the Brazilian is learning a new position. In hindsight, the decision to recruit him for this role looks like a huge misjudgement, both by the scouting team and Bruce.
The bigger worry for Newcastle is that they are no longer as reliable at the back, despite the media perception. A large reason why the back three worked last season was due to the ball-playing abilities of Fabian Schar and Florian Lejeune. Neither are currently in the team.
For this formation to work, the back three need to take on responsibility in possession to allow the team to keep the ball and get further up the pitch. Both Schar and Lejeune are able to play progressive passes up the pitch, which takes the pressure off the midfield two. Bruce continues to talk about his team’s problems to keep the ball. If this is to improve, he needs to reinstate the centre back pair to the first team.
Unlike Benitez, the current Newcastle manager has been given two very good players to use in wing-back roles. Valentino Lazaro had a poor defensive showing at Arsenal, but he was signed for a big fee by Antonio Conte at Inter Milan during the summer. This shows his ability and he should represent an upgrade on DeAndre Yedlin and Javier Manquillo. On the other flank, Danny Rose will be a much more natural fit than converted winger Matt Ritchie.
Newcastle are not currently safe on 31 points, despite them being ahead of the curve in terms of the relegation fight. Their upcoming fixtures see them take on other teams in the bottom half. It provides an opportunity for Bruce to show that he can coach a more progressive style. He doesn’t need to move away from a back five, but he needs to get players into roles that allow the team to be more progressive.
Although the fans have already written off his coaching ability, he has a chance to prove them wrong. The next few months will be key to shaping the short term future at Newcastle United. If performances like Norwich become the common theme, they will emerge as a team destined for relegation under Bruce.
They may not meet that fate in May, but it will certainly be in the post. Teams can only rely on their goalkeeper and the poor finishing of opposition teams for so long. The fans are aware of that, which is why he faces so much criticism on social media.
Despite the deceiving points tally, there has been a decline at both ends of the pitch under Steve Bruce. He needs to buck that trend or the club will be sleepwalking to another relegation.