At the halfway stage of the Premier League season. I aimed to do a half-term report of sorts on how I felt it has gone for Steve Bruce’s [feature image above from Sky Sports] Newcastle United. With fans not being allowed in stadiums meaning all games have been televised, it means I’ve been able to watch most games but given what I’ve seen, I wish I hadn’t.
After 19 games played, Newcastle are 16th in the table on 19 points. If that tally was replicated over the next 19 games, then Newcastle would finish on 38 points which is not always a safe points tally. They are out of both Cup competitions after losing to Championship side Brentford in the Carabao Cup Quarter Final and at Arsenal in the Third Round of the FA Cup. It is abundantly clear at this stage of the season, Newcastle’s season is basically about surviving and staying in the top flight.
Watching Newcastle this season has been a soul-destroying experience. The football has not been good, it has been dreadful and the stats support that [all stats accurate at the time of publishing and unless stated are sourced from the Premier League].
Newcastle have averaged a league worse of just 38% possession and have mustered 161 shots on goal. That is just four more than West Brom who have a league-low of 157 shots but have played one game less than. Over their 19 games, that is an average of 8.49 shots on goal per game and with 55 attempts on target that is an appalling average of 2.89 per game. That 55 shots on target is the second-worst in the league ahead of Burnley and Wes Brom but again, Newcastle have played one game more.
It is bleak at the other end of the pitch too. Defensively, Newcastle have allowed 291 shots on goal at an alarming rate of 15.21 shots per game. In 9 league games, the opposition has been allowed 15 shots or more! Karl Darlow has generally performed well while covering the injured Martin Dubravka. He has made 70 saves behind only West Brom’s Sam Johnstone.
Struggling to have shots on goals, conceding almost double the number of chances you can create. You cannot play we have a shot, you have two and do well. It is not sustainable. Put basically, those numbers are the perfect recipe for a team to struggle and if sustained, suffer relegation.
Admittedly, it did not look like that at the start of the season. Newcastle opened the campaign with a 2-0 win at West Ham with new singings Callum Wilson and Jeff Hendrick scoring. It looked a good start but alarmingly, Newcastle only had two shots all game. That was the definition of clinical but the warning signs first showed at the first home game of the season as Brighton romped to a convincing 3-0 win at St James, Brighton had 12 shots to Newcastle’s 6 and the home side failed to get a shot on target.
There was then the away game at Spurs. That was a long watch as the home side had a mammoth 23 shots on goal but could only fond the net once. Darlow was inspirational with some of his saves there and only a very fortuitous penalty decision that sparked outrage saw Steve Bruce’s side leave with a point having only had 3 shots on target all season. It was a similar story at Wolves, I could go on and on.
The fact is, only three times in Premier League games have Newcastle created more chances than the opposition; the 3-1 victory over Burnley, the 2-0 victory at Crystal Palace the 1-1 draw with Fulham. Only once, the opening day against West Ham have they created the same number of chances. That means in 16 out of the 19 league games. Newcastle have had fewer chances than the opposition and some of the differences are alarming. At Spurs, Newcastle got a point despite only having 6 shots to the home sides 23. Against Manchester United at home, they had 7 chances to Man United’s 28. Newcastle’s goal that game came from an Aaron Wan Bassaka own goal and Man United got a deserved 4-1 win eventually.
The turning point seems to have been around December, after the Covid outbreak at the club. Newcastle returned with a victory over West Brom but that was followed by the trip to Leeds. The game was 2-2 going into the final 10 minutes but Newcastle capitulated as Leeds won 5-2. It was nothing less than Newcastle deserved. If we use Newcastle’s two goals from 10 efforts as an average 5 shots per goal then Leeds 5 goals from 25 was a fair reflection. Such a result had been coming for some time but it seems to have triggered results to catch up with the performances.
Since this game, Newcastle have failed to win in any competition scoring only twice, a run stretching back to 8 in the league, 10 in all competitions. They salvaged a draw against Fulham at home and even with a man advantage in the final half an hour, needed a penalty to score and never really looked like threatening them. The other point coming against Liverpool in a very much backs to the wall job for most of the proceedings. In that run was also the League cup defeat to Brentford where again they were out-created. They did not do enough and it was a huge opportunity missed. Andy Carroll was the last Newcastle player to score, in the 2-1 home defeat to Leicester. That is the only goal Newcastle have scored in 2021 in all competitions.
Additionally, there was the embarrassment of the being the first team to lose to Sheffield United in the league this season. The Blades had not won in any of their opening 16 games; the worst start of any Premier League side ever. Yet, Newcastle did not turn up. It was not helped by Ryan Fraser’s dismissal but they were poor before then. Chirs Wilder’s side have been unlucky at times as the expected goals indicate they should be around 15th in the table but given the Blades had 17 shots that night and scored only once is perhaps an indicator of why they are where they are. That said, the Newcastle performance was poor. There was no urgency to get back into the game or anything. The worst thing was, it was entirely predictable and even Sky Bet had Chris Wilder’s men favourites.
Whenever teams come into such a poor run of form, question marks over the managers future arise. Just look at Chelsea. They sacked club legend Frank Lampard after a run of five defeats in eight league games. That’s Roman Abramovich for you but the decision is ridiculous. Before then, there was speculation surrounding Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer back in November with Manchester United 9 points behind leaders Liverpool after the first six games. Now, they are top of the league. Mikel Arteta has faced speculation too. However, despite a run of 2 points from a possible 24, there feels like there has been minimal discussion about the future of Bruce until only very recently as being potentially in trouble.
For weeks, Newcastle fans have been told Steve Bruce has been doing a fantastic job with most recently a former teammate of his, Mark Hughes saying the fans have too high expectations. There was the line from Mark Lawrenson following the 2-0 defeat at Southampton that ‘Well they’re never happy are they! They want to win the Champions League don’t they but they’re unfortunately but such is life.’ Danny Murphy defended Bruce too following the win at Crystal Palace; a game so dull you could have tuned in for the final five minutes, spared yourself the pain and still see all the goals by saying, ‘I don’t know what they want from Steve Bruce’ and Gary Neville suggested ‘There was real depression around the appointment of Steve Bruce because he managed Sunderland‘
To put a couple of myths to bed and firstly, the argument touted by Neville that Steve Bruce was never accepted by Newcastle fans because he used to manage Sunderland. That is rubbish. Yes, Bruce managed Sunderland and I remember the taunts at the time being of ‘Secret Agent Bruce’ as Sunderland struggled in the weeks before the eventually sacked him in 2011. I have never criticised Bruce for taking on the Newcastle job. If anyone who supports the club was offered the chance to do it they would take it no matter the circumstances as you would want to be the hero who turns it around. I have never faulted him for taking the job. I just never had the belief that he was a good enough coach and neither did the hierarchy at the club if reports at the time were right.
The majority of Newcastle fans do not ‘expect’ Champions League football every season. Newcastle have not qualified for that since finishing 3rd in the 2002/03 season under Sir Bobby Robson and have only come close once in 2011/12 season when Alan Pardew guided Newcastle to a 5th place finish. Fans reminisce about those European adventures, that is true but the majority are realistic. The vast majority expect the club and the players that represent it to try, to put that effort in and to give it their all on the pitch They want their club to show some sign of ambition other than just trying to survive, as Alan Shearer has maintained…
‘The fans just want a bit of ambition. They don’t just want a team that exists. They look at Villa who have ambition, Everton have ambition, Southampton have ambition – they don’t have that with Newcastle’
To his credit, with the help of Shearer and fans online, Danny Murphy changed his tune,
‘I did say a couple of weeks ago, I’m not sure what the Newcastle fans want. I know now – Alan told me enough, the fans told me enough. What they don’t want to see is a lack of creativity, a lack of energy and a lack of fight. Yes they’ve had some injuries but if you compare them, they’re a point ahead of Leeds. If you ask every Leeds fan if they’re enjoying watching their team they say yes. Why? Because they see a team that’s hungry, that are desperately trying to play the right way – being brave and bold. I think if they have everyone fit they could certainly be better than they are because at the moment they’re looking like a team devoid of confidence and lacking ideas’.
Shearer is absolutely right on this. Newcastle fans look at clubs like Southampton, West Ham, Everton, clubs that are not in the so-called top six. They see these clubs like Leicester who have recently unveiled their new stunning training ground. There were plans for them drawn up by Rafa Benitez in 2016 and that was the last we heard of them. Southampton have backed Ralph Hassenhuttl even after the humiliating 9-0 home defeat. Now, they are battling it out for a top 6 spot and were even sat top of the Premier League for the first time ever at one stage.
Look at West Ham. When David Moyes returned to the club last year they were deep in relegation trouble. He kept them up and has transformed their fortunes and the same can be said of how Dean Smith (who took over at Villa from Bruce with them sat 15th in the Championship and got them promoted that season) in the way he has turned it around at Aston Villa, Carlo Ancelotti at Everton as well have done incredible jobs.
According to transfermarket.com, Newcastle has a more valuable squad than West Ham and Southampton. Newcastle’s squad is worth £241.25m, the 11th most valuable in the Premier League. That is less than the squad worth of Everton and Leicester which has a squad value above £400m. Aston Villa has a more valuable squad (£285.75) but more than West Ham (£236.57m) and Southampton (£216.45m). That surely raises questions of what is going on in terms of how the squad is being managed as if that is an accurate barometer of where these clubs should be then the likes of Southampton and West Ham have no problems punching above weight while Newcastle are underperforming.
As for the clubs seeming lack of ambition, that is not Bruce’s fault. All he can do is do the best he can with what he’s got but it is hard to say he is doing that. In figures from transfermarkt.com, in the two seasons with the club after promotion, Rafa Benitez spent £95.64m on new signings compared to Bruce’s £100.49m. In his final season, Benitez finished 13th on 44 points. Bruce finished on the same number of points last season but the quality of play was not the same. For starters, Newcastle scored 4 goals fewer (38, down from 42) and conceded 10 more (58, up from 48) and that was also reflected in just how busy the goalkeeper was. Martin Dubravka made 95 saves in the 2018/19 season under Benitez. It was 170 under Bruce the following season. Newcastle had already started to go backwards.
Other than that, as a fan, I do take issue with some of his comments though such as claiming his ‘remit’ at Newcastle is to survive. In other words, that’s all that the club asks of him to deliver. The issue I took with it is not the aim as there are about 10 clubs for whom that is the ambition every season but the fact he said it so openly. It creates unnecessary negativity. Why can you not say something like ‘aim to score as many points as we can and see where it takes us’.
After saying that, how can motivate players to perform for the club?
It seems clear looking from the way the players looked after the defeat at Aston Villa. They did not seem interested and where are the leaders in the dressing room? Even Jamaal Lascelles, where has he gone? He was so vocal when Benitez initially came in that he was given the captaincy. This season, I know he has struggled with Covid and I do not want to downplay the impact that has had on him in anyway but he is not quite the same for much of this season. The body language after the Villa defeat means the writing may be on the wall but Bruce persists that he is still the best man for the job.
However, Bruce has not helped himself with other comments either. Before the Boxing Day clash at Manchester City, Bruce stated that he felt ‘The histrionics which have gone around it is quite ridiculous at times, but that’s what it is at a club like ours’. He basically accused fans of mass hysteria and being melodramatic, desperately seeking attention. He further dosed coal over the flames with his comments over the weekend, ‘I would ask the question: what do you gauge as success? I gauge success last year as matching Rafa’s tally of points, of where we finished, because that’s where we are at this particular moment, We are in the bottom half of the Premier League and we’ve been there for the best part of 15 years. What’s realistic for where we are? In between 11th and 16th? Is that realistic?‘
I repeat again, if you are a player playing at a football club and you hear your manager or head coach talking like that about the club and expectations, let alone being petty about his predecessor, would you be motivated to play for this coach? Again, there is no need for such a negative approach.
The real toxic poison at Newcastle United is the ownership. Mike Asley and Managing Director Lee Charnley have been almost invisible this season. That invisibility has meant Bruce has been the focal point; the only one in the club actually talking.
The responsibility for results will lie on him after some of his comments though. After the defeat to Sheffield United, he told us ‘the gloves are off’ and that he will be doing it ‘my way’. That begs the question of what and whose way has he been managing the team for the past 18 months?
Since then, we’ve had 4-4-2 with Wilson and Carroll starting but the performances have not changed. There is the same lack of urgency, lack of pressing and desire from the players. Possession stats have changed minimally and they averaged 39% over those two games. They managed 10 shots in those two games, getting only two on target. Then after the Aston Villa game, he felt he’d seen enough to be encouraged by the performance.
I didn’t and the snapshot below from YouTube shows just how defensively, it is all over the place. All 11 Newcastle players are in the box and yet Bertrand Traore could sill score!
Still, he claims he saw ‘encouraging signs’. There was one encouraging sign, they created more chance against Villa than they did against Arsenal but they did not score and they only got one shot on target given them an even worse shooting accuracy. He also claimed this week that he ‘never shys away from a challenge’. That was just before he refused to take any questions in his pre-match conference from the written media after they covered a story of fans putting a banner up at St James’ Park demanding Bruce be sacked. Wow, it’s back to those good old days with Alan Pardew was in charge.
Mike Ashley is a reluctant owner. That much is well known after he publicly backed the takeover headed by Amanda Staveley, the Rueben Brothers and PIF and has threatened to sue the Premier League for their handling of it. He must be as bemused as Newcastle fans that the Premier League authorised the takeover of Burnley within four weeks towards the end of last year but took 17 weeks to not even make a decision on the Newcastle takeover prompting them to withdraw.
Mike Ashley does not like making big changes if he does not need to. That was evident in 2009 as the club sleepwalked through defeats before Alan Shearer came in with 8 games remaining. He could not turn it around and Newcastle were relegated. The same can be said for 2016 under Steve McClaren before the axe fell giving the incoming Rafa Benitez just 10 games. He could not turn it around in time and Newcastle were relegated. Is the same about to happen in 2021? They seem set to sanction keeping Bruce on until the end of the season and look to bolster his coaching staff with Graeme Jones from Bournemouth.
As far as Mike Ashley is concerned, Amanda Staveley and PIF may come back into the ring after the court issues have been handled or another potential buyer may present themselves. However, if Mike Ashley wants to sell a Premier League club then performances and results need to change in the immediate future. If not, then he will need to get rid of Steve Bruce before it is too late.