Sadly, the chickens really have come home to roost for Steve Bruce in recent weeks.
Several fortunate results and our position in the table has generally masked the fact we’ve played pretty awfully for the vast majority of the season, however our luck has well and truly rant out of late.
We remain 7 points clear of the bottom three, but with us winning just 1 of our last 9 league games and failing to score in our last three, there’s a general acceptance (and fear) that things must change in the coming weeks if we’re to avoid being dragged into a late relegation scrap.
Burnley await tomorrow – the first of SIX winnable games for us between now and mid April – yet arrive in brilliant form, having moved into the top 10 after picking up 13 points from a possible 15 over their last 5.
The emphasis is on Bruce to mix things up – when it comes to both tactics, personnel and formation – with things threatening to turn sour at St James’ Park should we put in another unacceptable display here.
After so many painful performances this season (no matter how resolute we’ve sometimes been at St James’ Park), hopefully this is the game where we turn it around and give the crowd a home game to genuinely enjoy!
(4-2-3-1): Dubravka – Manquillo, Lascelles, Fernandez, Rose – Hayden, Shelvey – Saint-Maximin, Almiron, Joelinton – Gayle.
With Steve Bruce suggesting in his pre-match presser that he’ll move away from a five-man defence this weekend, it’ll be interesting to see which four he selects at the back should he stick to his word.
At right-back it’ll be between Manquillo and Yedlin with Lazaro suspended, and I’d be inclined to bring the Spaniard straight back in. Not only is he a better defender than Yedlin, he’s much better on the ball – something that could be key if we plan to adopt a slightly more progressive style of play here.
At left-back, Rose has done little to impress so far, lacking desire and appearing unfit. For that reason I want to see Ritchie return, but can he really play in a four-man defence after years of his career being spent as an attacking winger?
Lascelles seems like one of the first names on the team sheet at centre-back and looks certain to start, but with Clark and Dummett out for the season, it’ll be one of Fernandez, Schar or Lejeune that partner him. The latter hasn’t looked quite right since returning, so seems highly unlikely to start, while Schar has often played best on the right-side of a three-man defence, meaning Fernandez seems the most likely candidate to partner the skipper for me.
In midfield, I believe there’s only one midfield partnership we should be looking at this weekend – and that’s Jonjo Shelvey and Isaac Hayden. With Shelvey fit again (and badly missed) and Hayden unlucky to be dropped recently, they seem likely to replace the out of sorts Nabil Bentaleb and Sean Longstaff.
That said, it wouldn’t be a major surprise to see Matty Longstaff come in, with his energy and goal-threat something we could do with should we look to get at Burnley.
In attack, it looks like Dwight Gayle will start up top, and the latest clips from training suggest Joelinton could play out wide – with him spotted operating down our left in training drills on Thursday.
Saint-Maximin could then be played on the right-hand side – something he did several times at Nice – and Almiron in his favoured number 10 role behind Dwight Gayle; a player he linked up nicely with during his last start at Wolves.
Preferred NUFC XI – (4-2-3-1) – Dubravka – Manquillo, Lascelles, Fernandez, Ritchie – Hayden, Shelvey – Saint-Maximin, Almiron, Joelinton – Gayle.
Here’s ‘ones to watch’ in Sean Dyche’s in-form Clarets side:
Dwight McNeil – We’ve been regularly credited with an interest in the left winger over the past 12 months, and you can see why based on his flashes of brilliance over the past few seasons. He has superb delivery and an eye for goal, meaning Yedlin/Manquillo must be on their game here.
Chris Wood – The 6ft 3′ striker has already got into double figures once again this season and will be Burnley’s biggest threat in the box. Lascelles will have his hands full with the big Kiwi, who thrives off crosses / long balls into the six-yard area.
Nick Pope – Only Liverpool’s Alisson has kept more clean sheets than the England international this season – which is a concern considering we’ve scored the fewest goals in the Premier League this season! A good shot stopper who’s been in brilliant form during Burnley’s impressive recent run.
Ciaran Clark has been ruled out for the season and Andy Carroll will be missing once again, but both Jonjo Shelvey and Javier Manquillo are back and in contention to start.
Valentino Lazaro is suspended after seeing red at Palace last weekend, while this one will come too soon for Emil Krafth – despite him returning to training this week.
Paul Dummett and Jetro Willems remain sidelined after suffering season-ending injuries last month.
For the visitors, top scorer Chris Wood is expected to return from a hamstring injury, but Ashley Barnes, Matt Lowton and Johann Berg Gudmundsson remain out.
If Bruce bottles it and sticks with a back five, I can’t see beyond a bore draw, but it could either way if we do throw caution to the wind and have a go.
They’re in form, being unbeaten in 5 with 4 wins and a draw, but they’ve also rode their luck in recent weeks and are beatable – especially away from Turf Moor.
I have no idea how it’ll go should we switch to a four-man defence and 4-2-3-1, but I’m expecting a reaction from the players back on home turf after two appalling away days in London.
Head says draw. Heart says we’ll sneak it!
Prediction: Newcastle 2-1 Burnley