The 5 dilemmas facing Steve Bruce as the Premier League prepares to finally return

The takeover will continue to be the main focus for many, but excitement is starting to build with the football resumption edging closer. The television schedule has been released and three of our first four matches will be on free to air channels.

Steve Bruce has an opportunity to prove his doubters wrong and further his claims to be kept on as manager long term. Although this seems unlikely if the takeover goes through, he will still hold hopes that it can be done.

The news that match day squads will be increased to 20, with each manager able to make five ubstitutions each game, should aid Bruce manage the demands on his players. Below, we take a look at five selection dilemmas facing him:

1) Yedlin, Manquillo or Krafth

This has been a problematic position for Bruce this season, with none of the three managing to nail down a starting role. In terms of minutes played, none of them have accrued more than 1000 minutes in the Premier League. Javier Manquillo has featured the most with 965, but his contract is set to expire in the summer. If he doesn’t agree to a temporary extension, he might not even be available for the majority of the matches.

Defensively, the Spaniard has been the most effective, averaging 2.9 ball recoveries per game, which is more than both Yedlin (1.8) and Krafth (1.3). He has also been better at applying pressure to opposition attackers. According to Statsbomb data (taken from FB Ref), his successful pressure
percentage is 30.7%. In simple terms, this is the percentage of times that the team wins possession back within five seconds of the pressure being applied. Yedlin (20.8%) and Krafth (28.3%) don’t perform as well in this metric.

In the 4-2-3-1 set-up used by Bruce before the break, a defensively solid full-back is more important to provide balance. Due to his ball winning ability and aggressive defensive style, Manquillo should be the preferred option if a contract renewal can be agreed.

2) Rose or the returning Dummett?

Danny Rose has been underwhelming since his loan signing in January, but he seems to be favoured by Bruce. The return of Paul Dummett will add competition, as long as he is allowed to be registered following his long-term injury.

At Tottenham, Rose was known for his attacking qualities at full-back, but he has had only four shot creating actions since his move to St James’ Park. His total of six ball recoveries also highlights his passive style of defending

Dummett’s tackle success rate of 60% underlines his quality as a defender. In comparison, Rose has succeeded in only 37.5% of his tackles in a black and white shirt. There is likely to be rotation due the amount of games, but Dummett could prove to be the option that provides more balance.

3) Centre midfield – 4 options but only 2 slots?

To provide the most balance to the midfield pivot, it is likely to be a choice of Isaac Hayden or Nabil Bentaleb for one position and Sean Longstaff or Jonjo Shevey for the other. This is due to each pair offering similar profiles.

In terms of defensive actions, it can be argued that Bentaleb performed well during his short spell to date, with an average of 5.6 ball recoveries per game. This is significantly better than Hayden’s average of 3.4 per game, but this needs to be caveated with the far smaller data sample of Bentaleb, having featured in only 270 Premier League minutes.

Across all competitions, Bentaleb accrued four yellow cards in five matches and he was criticised for being out of shape. However, the stoppage may have helped him get into a better physical shape to find his best form.

Due to his reliability, it is likely Hayden is preferred in bigger matches, but both should have parts to play.

In the more creative role, Shelvey is likely to be the frontrunner to start, with Bruce known to be a big fan. The data supports his creative ability, with 2.55 shot creating actions per ninety minutes. Considering our attacking woes, he is key to the formation change working. In our final game before the break, Shelvey made three key passes, four ball recoveries and finished with a pass success rate of 86%. He needs to start. 

Although with an average shot creating actions per ninety minutes of 2.14, the older Longstaff brother will provide a good rotation option. Matty should also get more game time, but he could play either role.

4. Lazaro or Ritchie?

The right wing position in the 4-2-3-1 is another selection dilemma for Bruce. For the majority of the campaign, Almiron was forced into the role, but he has been much more effective as a number ten. There is a lot of support for Lazaro to be given a chance when the action resumes.

There isn’t much data to show his impact in the Premier League yet, but in his final season at Hertha Berlin, he contributed three goals and six assists. Lazaro had 2.96 shot creating actions per ninety minutes. Compared to Ritchie, he also has more pace and is capable of running with the ball, which would add another dimension to the attack. 

This season, Ritchie is yet to have a goal involvement in the league, but his 3.27 shot creating actions per ninety minutes shows that he is continuing to influence matches. Most of his best work has been done from set pieces, which are less important when Shelvey and Lazaro can both take them. 

Lazaro should be preferred, due to his pace being better suited to the counter attacking style, but Ritchie will be good cover for him.

5. Joelinton, Carroll or Gayle?

This is the biggest problem for Bruce, as it is well documented that he has only one goal from his three registered strikers. Joelinton was the one to get that strike, but his performances since have shown a player struggling to adapt to the league. 

According to Understat, Joelinton has an expected goals (xG) of 4.56, but he has scored only once, which underlines his poor finishing. Although, he has shown some element of link-up play with an expected assists (xA) of 2.9. The Brazilian was often too far away from goal, as highlighted by his average of 1.67 shots per ninety minutes. These numbers are underwhelming and there is hope that he can be more effective without fans in the stadium, as there will be less pressure on him. 

His training ground performances are often commented on by coaches and team-mates, so the new environment could benefit him.

Dwight Gayle started the final match before the break and he was very unfortunate not to score against Southampton. During the match, he had five shots and he was regularly getting into scoring positions.

Caveats need to be applied due to the small data size, but his underlying numbers are impressive. Gayle averages 0.62 xG per ninety minutes. This is significantly higher than Joelinton’s average of 0.19. He also averages 2.68 shots per ninety minutes, which is higher than Joelinton (1.67). 

Gayle is a more natural striker, with his movement and positioning allowing him to get into dangerous positions more often. However, he has yet to find the back of the net this season. 

Andy Carroll remains another option, but his injury record means that he may be an option from the bench more than a started.

Despite his disappointing record for this season, it will be hoped that Joelinton can return to action with a point to prove. His recent interviews have been encouraging, as he is saying the right things. The Brazilian needs to back it up on the pitch and he will likely be given the chance to do it. As mentioned above, he could be one of the few to benefit from an empty St James’ Park.

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