“Stiepermann… Cantwell… Pukki, this for three! A hat-trick for Teemu Pukki! Another glorious finish and Norwich are 3-0 up against Newcastle!”
Mike Ashley’s appointment of Steve Bruce as the successor of Tyneside’s beloved Rafael Benítez was an appointment met with about as much fanfare in Newcastle as the closing of a kebab shop.
Whilst a step-down in calibre from the Champions League winning Spaniard was expected by most rational Newcastle supporters, seeing the former Sunderland manager clutching a black and white scarf further showed a complete lack of ambition from the Magpies’ unfavoured owner and with two successive opening losses for Bruce making life seem even bleaker for fans at St James’ Park.
But should Newcastle supporters start equipping themselves with cabbage-like projectiles just yet?
I wouldn’t run it by them. Newcastle’s rather shambolic 3-1 loss to Norwich at Carrow Road left the black and white faithful fearing for the future under Steve Bruce; with arguably one of the most lacklustre and flimsy performances by Newcastle since the Steve McClaren era, especially defensively.
Despite playing with three centrebacks and wingbacks that attempted to track back, Bruce’s permeable back five had the structure of a house of cards – with no defenders in black and white making much effort to close down the attackers in yellow and green; leaving the man of the hour Teemu Pukki in acres of space inside the box to fire home a volley following a corner to open the scoring and then essentially given enough room by all three of Newcastle’s centre-halves to stroke home a second – a goal that was made easy by a spectator-like defensive strategy.
The stunted trio of Paul Dummett, Jamal Lascelles and Fabian Schär couldn’t cope with the Canaries’ superior work ethic and quick passing play, with the poor defensive structure striking again to leave gaps in the Newcastle backline which Norwich exploited with ease.
Despite Steve Bruce having some defensively acceptable campaigns to his name; engineering rather tight defences during the 2007/08 and 2008/09 seasons at Wigan Athletic, the former Manchester United centreback’s defensive reputation has deteriorated during his more recent managerial roles (as any Aston Villa fan will testify to).
These questionable defensive habits of Bruce’s were most evidently on show on Newcastle United’s opening day loss to Arsenal. With the score goalless and the Magpies searching for their first Premier League opening day victory for six seasons, Steve Bruce took off midfield engine Jonjo Shelvey in exchange for Jetro Willems in the centre of midfield.
Bruce then moved Willems to left wing-back so that the Dutchman is more comfortable; sabotaging the shape of the 3-5-2 formation and subsequently leading to the only goal of the game as the painfully slow closing down of Willems on Ainsley Maitland-Niles allowed the youngster to cross the ball for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to poke home mere minutes after that tactical change was made.
Similar tactical faux pas earned Bruce the sack at Aston Villa; with defensive midfielder Miles Jedinak being used as a permanent centre half, Ahmed Elmohamady being deployed as a winger and natural centre back Axel Tuanzebe being forced into the right-back position. Steve Bruce’s stubbornness as a tactician and reluctance to stray away from his primary set-up, shown at both Villa and Sheffield Wednesday, should also worry Newcastle fans.
With the Geordie almost a direct contrast to Rafa Benítez in this regard as the Spaniard would regularly scaffold a very deep defence to combat teams of a certain attacking calibre. His previous managerial tenures also show that Bruce often relies heavily on the defensive structure put in place by his predecessor; with a strong defence left behind usually indicating a fruitful first season for the veteran manager. This, however, fades over the course of his time at the helm of the club and eventually leaves Bruce with a weak and leaky defence; explaining why the 58-year-old only sporadically lasts more than two seasons at a club – a feat he has only achieved three times in eleven managerial tenures.
Ahead of the defence, the midfield and attacking threat of Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United haven’t looked at all convincing either.
Despite Shelvey’s best efforts, the midfield core of Shelvey, Isaac Hayden and a variation of Sean Longstaff or Ki Sung-Yeung looked increasingly lackadaisical and struggled to pick up players or close passing channels, particularly at Carrow Road where the hungrier Norwich midfielders and attackers were passing around Newcastle players as if they were statues.
This was exposed even further by the immense work rate of the likes of Pukki who would track back and overload the lethargic midfield three. Newcastle under Benitez were a team rarely outworked with players like Longstaff earning attention from teams such as Manchester United for their workhorse type displays last season.
Norwich’s Marco Stiepermann perhaps exploited this the most as he was gifted with an abundance of space to toy with; eventually being able to comfortably slide in Cantwell for Pukki’s third goal. Going forward the midfield looked tame and couldn’t muster up any support for the two isolated strikers, with the 5-3-2 formation that shifts into a 3-5-2 leaving full-backs Matt Ritchie and Javier Manquillo as their only flanking threats, whilst neither the ‘wingers’ nor the centre midfielders provided any supporting runs for Joelinton to lay off to.
The Newcastle midfield’s inability to feed the two-pronged attack further nullifies any attacking threat Newcastle may have given off, with both Joelinton and Miguel Almiròn left completely isolated for both games this season and substitute striker Yoshinori Muto even complaining in a post-match interview about the complete lack of service. The Japanese attacker managing only five touches in his 27 minutes on the pitch.
This negated attack is primarily limited by Steve Bruce’s misuse of Joelinton; with the Brazilian being made to fulfil the role of a target man despite playing as a complete forward at Hoffenheim and being expected to adapt to an entirely obscure style of football for him at only 23-years-old.
In Germany, Joelinton thrived as the spearhead of the triangular attack in a 3-4-2-1 formation with the flat defensive four feeding to Ishak Belfodil and Andrej Kramarić to subsequently supply Joelinton in attack. Bruce instead expects him to play as a target man whose primary role is to hold up play and knockdown balls to Almiròn – something made hard by the lack of supporting runs his teammates tend to make.
Alternatively, the recently acquired Allan Saint-Maximin could provide an attacking solution for Bruce, with the lightning fast and skilful French dribbler adept to provide some genuine danger on the right wing or as a pacey striker used to playing alongside a striking partner, with Saint-Maxim creating a prolific partnership with Mario Balotelli in Patrick Vieira’s OGC Nice side last season. However, with Steve Bruce’s aforementioned tactical stubbornness, Newcastle fans shouldn’t be encouraged to hold their breath or they might suffocate.
Promising signings made in the summer will only keep fans on side for a short amount of time. The misuse of these players could become increasingly tiring for fans who will question why Benitez was not provided with the type of transfer budget Bruce has been.
Steve Bruce is a manager with over 21 years of managerial experience, and it would be unfair to condemn him to leading the managerial sack race before he has even got his footing at the start line. However, with roaring disapproval and backlash from the fan base that punched a police horse combined with a dressing room yearning for the management of a Rafa Benìtez, it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to suggest that Bruce has a mountain to climb if he wants to instil confidence back into supporters with lofty aspirations.
“If Steve Bruce manages to last the whole season then anything above 20th would be an achievement. However, I think there will come a point later in the season where the club won’t be able to ignore the blatant fact the job will be too big for Bruce and make a change. Unlike what followed Steve McClaren’s sacking, there won’t be a manager of Rafa Benítez’s calibre waiting in the wings this time round.” – Joe Chilcott, The Magpie Channel