Not for the first time this season, Steve Bruce seemed at a complete loss to explain how and why his Newcastle United team were so poor. “I was absolutely shocked at basically Brighton being that far in front of us in every department tonight,” he said after a humiliating 3-0 defeat.
When a manager cannot explain the problems with his team, let alone come up with a solution, you know the end is near. But a manager being “shocked” by an opponent that has already beaten his team by the exact same score line earlier in the season? That is unforgivable.
Before we get into the problems with Bruce, first the obligatory mention that Newcastle United is in dire straits and will remain that way until Mike Ashley leaves the club. The manager, however bad, is not the biggest culprit of the malaise at St. James’ Park.
Nevertheless Newcastle do not have the third worst squad in the division and yet they are sleepwalking towards relegation.
Unsurprisingly, Bruce is the 5/4 favourite to be the next Premier League manager to lose his job.
During his ill-fated tenure at Championship Aston Villa – defined by mediocrity, overly-cautious football, and a steady stagnation – Bruce was mocked by the fan base for his tendency to assure reporters that in the race for promotion Villa would be ‘there or thereabout’ come the end of the season.
That dangling ‘thereabouts’ captured Bruce’s complacency. There was a self-assurance and wearying fatalism about his demeanour and tactical management, those sighs and shakes of the head suggesting he was blameless in a natural and unstoppable decline. Every Newcastle supporter will recognise this mentality, which bleeds out from press conferences to team selections and the tactical approach: drifting, aimless, and middle of the road.
Newcastle under Ashley is already a club prone to drifting into trouble, and so the last thing this fan base needed was a manager like Bruce. Magpies supporters are often mislabelled as entitled or self-important, when in fact all they demand is the bare minimum: a team that provides some hope; something to get passionate about. Bruce clearly cannot deliver that.
Newcastle’s tactical tension
On the pitch, a tension appears to have overshadowed the Bruce era. He recently revealed that he had long wished to play an attacking game using a back four, but had conceded to his players’ demands to emulate Rafael Benitez’s defensive setup with a flat back five. In January, he publicly called out his team and declared: “the gloves are off now and we will do it my way.”
Since then Newcastle have moved between a 4-2-3-1 and diamond 4-4-2, shifting the defensive line up a bit and supposedly committing to a more attacking and confrontational approach (although there is little evidence of the latter point).
But it would be naïve to buy Bruce’s version of events, not only because it seems alarmingly anti-managerial to bow to the players’ tactical preferences but because the dour, cagey, deep-line tactics that have largely characterised Bruce’s tenure are consistent with his time at Villa, Sheffield Wednesday, Hull City, and Sunderland.
Wherever the truth, the perceived tactical tension – between players and manager, between defensive and attacking football – is certainly a poor foundation for a Premier League season, and it helps explain why Newcastle have lacked an obvious plan in 2020/21.
Why Ashley must act now
It is difficult to see how Newcastle can get out of trouble without a change in the dugout and the subsequent new-manager bounce – which, given the quality in the squad, they can realistically expect.
Just a bit more positivity about the training ground, along with some fresh ideas and a focus on a bolder attacking approach, should improve self-esteem enough to pull Newcastle more than three points clear of Fulham before their showdown on the final day. Bringing local players Shaun Longstaff, Matt Longstaff, and Andy Carroll in from the cold to replace those who are coasting – and waiting to leave this summer – would make a huge difference, too.
And there are plenty of free agents available to do just that. Chris Wilder (2/1 to be the next Newcastle manager), Eddie Howe (6/1), and Frank Lampard (17/2) are all ambitious and talented coaches who would likely take the role on, each offering a different tactical direction.
In short, Ashley has an easy job to do. Make a change and he will likely avoid relegation. Keep Bruce in charge and the ugly slide will continue until Newcastle find themselves ‘there or thereabouts’ when they line up at Craven Cottage in May.