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Opinion

Rafa Benitez, not Steve Bruce, laid the ground for Newcastle’s win at Spurs

3 months ago
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Steve Bruce has won his first three points as Newcastle manager, away from home against Spurs, with an excellent performance from his team.

Post-match, he said he hoped the result would “shut a few people up” after comments made about his tactical acumen following a dire defeat at the hands of Norwich.

Bruce was insulted that his abilities had been called into question. The insinuation that he “couldn’t even do a warm up” had cut him deep. He insisted that the team had worked on shape and positioning all week, and pointed to his long managerial career as evidence that he does actually know what he’s doing.

The fact is though, that Newcastle’s excellent win at Spurs came about following a tactical climb-down from Bruce and a return to his predecessor’s tried and trusted methods.

The 3-5-2 formation that had seen the Magpies fall to Arsenal and then collapse against Norwich, was jettisoned in favour of a 3-4-3, which became 5-4-1 in defensive phases.

It will not be lost on Newcastle’s long-suffering fans that this is the formation that served the club so well in the second half of last season, following the acquisition by Rafa Benitez of Miguel Almiron.

When Bruce arrived at Newcastle, his initial press conference (after addressing the Benitez-shaped elephant in the room) hit the usual notes.

Slates would be cleaned, chances would be granted. For one player in particular, this was music to the ears.

Jonjo Shelvey had endured a difficult time last season. dropped by Benitez, he found himself behind first choice central midfield pairing Isaac Hayden and Sean Longstaff, the improving Ki and the tough tackling Mo Diame. Despite being arguably Newcastle’s most naturally-gifted player, Shelvey’s workrate and consistency have always been questionable – for a team built to play with solidity and discipline that is an unaffordable luxury.

In Bruce’s first two games, however, Shelvey was granted a starring role. The new man at the helm seemed to want to build the team around his number 8 and make full use of his extravagant passing abilities. From one perspective, this worked: over one-and-a-half games against Arsenal and Norwich, Shelvey’s pass completion rate stood at 80.8% (All stats from WhoScored). He made three key passes and scored one goal. One might think that not too bad, considering the results of those games.

Look at the flip side of that coin though and a rather damning picture emerges. Despite playing at the base of midfield, Shelvey made just one tackle and managed zero interceptions, clearances or blocks. He didn’t even commit a tactical foul against either Arsenal or a rampant Norwich. His midfield partners were expected to do his running for him, which for a team battling in the bottom half of the table, is not conducive to harmony or cohesion.

The extra man in midfield inevitably took a player away from the Newcastle forward line. Playing just two up front left Newcastle toothless, with opposition defences easily picking up their isolated attackers. Steve Bruce must take the blame for this, particularly considering his persistence with 3-5-2 after the Arsenal game, and then his refusal to change shape when behind and floundering against Norwich.

A return to 3-4-3 against Spurs was welcome: it is the only sensible course of action for this side. But it is also an admission of defeat from Bruce, particularly as it involved the demotion of Shelvey to the bench.

The performance itself was classic Benitez: the discipline out of possession was excellent, and every player put his body on the line for the cause. The compactness of the team made life incredibly difficult for Spurs, who were reduced to aimlessly passing sideways and pumping hopeful balls into the box. Compactness was of course a hallmark of Benitez’s time at the club and you could see his influence in the play of some of his most attentive students.

The tactical nous on display from Dummett, Hayden, Martin Dubravka and Jamaal Lascelles was incredible, and impossible not to equate with Newcastle’s approach in wins against Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea under Benitez.

What has perhaps been glossed over in most analyses of the game has been Newcastle’s intelligence in the brief periods they had the ball. We now know that their 20% possession was the second-lowest from a winning team in the Premier League since 2004. But when they had the ball, Newcastle used it well. Passes were short and sharp, players didn’t try to dribble through Spurs’ superior midfield. Having regained the ball, it was taken into areas where Spurs’ players were less likely to press for it, allowing the Newcastle defence time to regroup and recover.

The goal, when it came, was delightful in its execution, precision and simplicity. It was the result of a 17 pass move, during which the ball left the ground only twice (and once was for Christian Atsu’s cutely-chipped assist). Nine players were involved in the build-up. The goal scorer, Joelinton, did his best Saloman Rondon impression. He dropped back to halfway, picked up possession and held up the ball in the move’s early stages, riding challenges and laying it off to team mates.

This was a goal that proved that Newcastle can play a bit, as well as defend. Without Shelvey on the pitch, there were no raking cross-field passes – but then, none were needed. It was football pared back to its simplest form – get the ball, pass the ball, get the ball, pass the ball – a famously Spanish style. More than anything, it highlighted the misguided nature of Steve Bruce’s initial tactical approach, and the wisdom that can be found in the old adage: ‘if it aint broke, don’t fix it.’

You can understand any new manager’s desire to put his stamp on a team he takes over. But when that stamp causes a regression in quality from what has gone before, a rethink is needed.

Bruce should be applauded for rethinking just three games into the season and for not being pig-headed enough to persevere with a disastrous tactical switch any longer than he did. Those midweek drills on shape and formation undoubtedly paid off – but they were revision rather than revolution; Newcastle will continue to recite the lessons of Rafa Benitez for some time yet.

(Graeme also has his own website which you can visit here.)

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