When Rafael Benitez left Newcastle back in the summer, it was seen as the final death knell for any hopes of progression – or even bare survival – at St James Park.
Tactically astute, an accomplished man-manager, and resourceful in the face of a despised owner, Benitez showed incomparable loyalty in stabilising Newcastle. Signings such as Ayoze Perez, Miguel Almiron and Fabian Schar all made a positive impact for Newcastle at key times during Benitez’ time on Tyneside, and provided a workable foundation on which the Spaniard’s successor could build.
In that regard, Mike Ashley’s decision to appoint Steve Bruce was a move seen as suicidal by many Newcastle fans. However, the apocalyptic scenario expected has not played out, with the Magpies now a comfortable seven points ahead of the dreaded relegation zone.
Can Bruce Steer Newcastle to Survival?
A current tally of 11 goals after 12 games puts Newcastle as the division’s (joint) third-lowest scorers, but with no team currently below Newcastle managing to find any real consistency as yet, the signs are very positive.
As would be expected of any side that could easily be sucked back into the relegation dogfight, the defensive mindset remains firmly in place for now. Under the circumstances, only the end can justify the means. However, current football betting outrights for Premier League relegation indicate that a mid-table finish, possibly in the region of 9th-12th, would be a very admirable achievement for Newcastle.
With Bruce having previously overseen successful survival campaigns with Birmingham, Wigan, Sunderland and Hull, Bruce is a stabilising influence – if little else. That said, only two of those spells (at Wigan and Sunderland) were exclusively spent in the Premier League. His average win-rate across those matches was 31.7%, which rounds down slightly to 12 wins per-Premier League season.
Though these numbers are indicative of little more than a survival specialist, Bruce has at least shown the ability to play to his best players’ respective strengths, with that challenge becoming all the more difficult in the face of Ayoze Perez’ summer departure to Leicester.
His man-management is also under no question, as the key components of Newcastle’s attacking phases are relatively new additions to the squad. After all, Newcastle’s 2015/16 campaign was a woeful tale of mutual unfamiliarity within the starting XI, featuring a throng of new players that had no time to gel or adapt to the rigours of the Premier League.
The present situation is light years away from the horror show that was 2015/16, and that is a start if nothing else. Ultimately, everyone knows that Bruce will not be on Tyneside in five years’ time – or have a stand named after him in twenty-five years’ time – but the realistic list of better candidates out there is currently a very short one indeed.
Wide Men Vital Under Bruce Regime
During this campaign, Bruce’s default formation has been a 5-4-1, which essentially translates to him putting full and unconditional faith in his wide players. The main players in that respect are DeAndre Yedlin and Jetro Willems, acting as marauding wingbacks and providing the bulk of service to solitary striker Joelinton.
Summer loanee Willems’ strong start to life at St James’ Park under Bruce is particularly notable, with the Dutchman second only to Joelinton in the FPL’s much-cited ‘ICT’ (Influence, Creativity, Threat) index. With 4.7 points per-game on average, Willems is also joint-second (alongside Matthew Longstaff) by just 0.3 points behind Ciaran Clark in the club’s Points Per-Game table.
Naturally though, in the eyes of the layman, Newcastle #9 Joelinton’s output will be the biggest reflection of whether or not Bruce is the man to take Newcastle forward. However, Bruce is experienced enough to know that Joelinton will not hit the fabled 20 goals per-season mark, which so many people assert to separate the good from the great.
In turn, Bruce has rightly seen fit to utilise him as a more than just a long-ball target, with his hold-up play acting as a distracting influence to the opposition, while others run into space. With the default providers of balls becoming recipients, and vice-versa, Newcastle have a significant degree of unpredictability, with no set source of goals. That sort of competitive edge can often prove to be decisive in relegation battles.
Under attacking conditions, Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron have previously taken telling opportunities to move infield, and instantaneously transform the 5-4-1 setup into a 3-4-3 when attacking – and vice-versa when defending. As Newcastle’s most creative players by far, both men have acted as impromptu attackers in the past, providing Joelinton with much-needed support.
Of course, this intricate setup will not always work, and Newcastle’s vulnerability to a 3-on-3 counter-attack – as they hurriedly switch back to the 5-4-1 – is self-evident. The likes of Liverpool and Manchester City will seldom be caught out, with those two teams being notable as the best counter-attacking sides in the league by far.
That said, Bruce’s setup will at least do enough against the chasing pack behind Newcastle, and put further distance between themselves and the drop. Thus, Bruce’s status as the ‘right man’ for the Newcastle job is at least assured in the short term.
Can Bruce Lead Newcastle to Survival?
In a word, yes. However, there will be plenty of heart-stopping moments, such as the stoppage-time equaliser that Bournemouth so nearly claimed last weekend.
Below Newcastle, the likes of Southampton and Norwich are already looking like genuine relegation fodder, and on current evidence, only the last relegation spot will keep the pundits guessing. If anything could be Newcastle’s undoing, it is the fine margins of victory upon which they rely – along with the need to score first.
The Magpies’ recent win over Bournemouth marked just the second occasion this season that Bruce’s men have scored twice or more in a league game this term. Indeed, prior to the 3-2 win at West Ham on 2 November, Newcastle were the only team in the league not to have achieved that particular accolade. The victory against Bournemouth was also the first time since March that Newcastle have come from behind to beat any Premier League opposition.
Unlike a number of other teams, Newcastle do not face any particularly venomous runs of fixtures over the next two months.
League action resumes with a Monday night fixture at Villa Park on 25 November. With the Magpies unbeaten in 12 matches against Villa, there is a historical precedent to believe that the three points can go to the visitors. Steve Bruce’s former involvement with Aston Villa before being sacked provides extra narrative, and a win would mark Newcastle’s first run of three consecutive top-flight wins since November 2018.
With Newcastle potentially as much as ten points clear of the drop by the end of the next Premier League game week – which also represents a third of the season gone – those who wish to see Bruce make way for a more ‘stylish’ manager may soon have very little with which to argue their case.