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Why Steve Bruce needs to stop being what Rafa Benitez was and try and be what Rafa wasn’t

2 months ago
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Newcastle 0 Brighton 0: Cast No Shadow

The wombling wise words of Oasis rarely give us insight into anything other than the joy of a nonsense singalong but leaving SJP on Saturday evening I was reminded of their 1995 classic, Cast No Shadow. What Oasis were singing about I don’t know or care but after Newcastle’s tame scoreless draw against relegation adversaries Brighton, the game made me think of the song. Why?

Well after all the statements from the players since the start of the season and the reasonable backing of the supporters who went to the game against Brighton on Saturday, it looks to me like everyone has moved on from Rafa Benitez, except Steve Bruce.

Rafa has gone, the supporters have made their decision and go or stay away based on that, now is the time for Steve Bruce to step out of Benitez’ shadow quickly because at the moment he is affecting nothing and casting no shadow. He is still playing Rafa’s formation, the players Rafa would have played, most of the Spaniards game plan and the only difference between the two is that Rafa knew how to do it properly and Bruce looks like he doesn’t.

“Here’s a thought for every man who tries to understand what is in his hands (what’s in his hands)”

We were promised attacking football.

That’s not an easy promise to keep but Brighton promised it too and they delivered it on Saturday. They had 71% possession, not that it was obvious from the start that they would dominate so completely. Both teams looked to have set their stall up not to lose.

Newcastle, facing the Leazes end, quickly sat so deep that they needed a snorkel to breathe. There were warning signs, a Schar Cruyff turn and a Manquillo meg brought a cheer from the crowd but if your defenders have to do tricks on the edge of their box then something is wrong. Usually that those defenders have no one to pass too.

Brighton gained confidence and their hope of scoring was obvious, they began to swarm forward, possession percentage into the ManCityosphere. Dubravka started saving after 9 minutes as the NUFC tactics became clear, hang on till half time, attack down the slope in the second half introducing the big guns later on. Well, bigger guns anyway.

Ok, just guns then.

‘Our only gun?’

“He walks along the open road of love and life surviving if he can (surviving if he can)”

Survive until half time United did. It wasn’t always an onslaught but there was a period in the middle of the first half when Brighton could easily have scored three goals. With Jonjo’s more talented twin Aaron Mooy flitting in from the left, the Propper footballer in midfield and Maupay and Grob running down what will now be known as the Dummett Channel, the Seagulls breached our 11-man defence at will. They didn’t score. They could have but they didn’t, thanks to Dubravka in goal, the bar, an offside goal and a couple of poor finishes. Even their set pieces were controlled, in-swinging corners, difficult to deal with, threatening and practised.

Ours on the other hand were just Shelvey floating a high ball into the box like no one had ever mentioned that corners existed. Schar should have done better from one on the half hour, Almiron missed our only really good chance of the half ten minutes earlier, shutting his eyes and shaking a foot at a one on one which went straight at Brighton stopper Ryan. Half time couldn’t come soon enough for the Stevolution.

“Bound with all the weight of all the words he tried to say, Chained to all the places that he never wished to stay.”

We have since heard Steve Bruce say that he couldn’t wait to get the players in at half time and make some changes. I didn’t see any changes and if Bruce did make any, he obviously didn’t get them through to the players. A friend of mine watching on TV texted me to say that the 3-4-3 hadn’t been working. At no point did I see NUFC ever play 3-4-3. If that was what was offered to the TV as a formation, no one had told the players. Second half, just like the first. They were better organised than us and passed the ball around us. There was no pressure was on the ball when Brighton had it, not just in their half but often in and around our penalty area. Atsu missed a great chance on 46 minutes, side-footing wide from eight yards but that was just about it for United. The expected head of steam? Well someone had forgotten to put the kettle on at half time.

A head of steam or a description of the game?’

“Bound with all the weight of all the words he tried to say as he faced the sun he cast no shadow”

The United manager made changes after 75 minutes, finally affecting the game. Ki replacing the husk formerly known as Jonjo Shelvey, Saint-Maximin coming on for Almiron. Immediately Brighton almost scored when sub Connelly chipped Dubravka and Schar did a Barry Venison-esque acrobatic clearance off the line. That was it really. Sure, ASM coming on put Brighton on the back foot, even more so when Andy Carroll got his first and hopefully not last minutes of the season. The last ten minutes saw United attack more but a Dubravka save apart, neither goal was threatened. Pressure at last, yes. Threat, no.

Before the game Steve Bruce said that “Five games in and it is already a bit of a cup final.” Judging by this, if we do ever get to a cup final with Bruce in charge, we will be playing for penalties. This was as dull a 0-0 draw as you are ever likely to see.

“As they took his soul they stole his pride (pride)”

Apart from the last 15 minutes, Joelinton cut a frustrated figure. He missed a half chance midway through the second half, running through his shot was deflected out for a corner by Dunk I think. Apart from that, he never had a sniff of goal and to be fair, he got out what he put in. Joelinton is quick-ish but he’s not fast. He is big-ish, but not massive and he is strong-ish but not fearsome. Basically, he looks like he has a little bit of everything but not enough of anything.

Steve Bruce said before the game that it was there for everyone to see that the problem United have had over the last two years was that they didn’t score enough goals. That wasn’t the problem that I saw over those two years. When the manager was given money to buy suitable attacking players he did so. The problem over those two years was that he was never given the money to buy suitable players. Bruce by his own admission has been given the money and the players, unless he was just trotting out the party line. When Bruce arrived he said: “In an ideal world you’d like six or seven weeks to prepare, but when the call came three weeks ago I was like a kid in a sweet shop.” More like a kid in a sweat shop now. Trapped and very little he can do about it.

‘Steve Bruce: Erm, any ideas?’

“Ah hah.”

Still, there can be hope. Bruce is right that the team have to take their big chances. Against Brighton. United had two, missed by Atsu and Almiron and we have to hope that once Carroll, Gayle, ASM and Ritchie are fit (if they ever can be) then the team creates and takes more chances. Certainly, it is difficult to play the promised attacking football when many of your best attacking players are injured.

Not that it has been like that at Brighton, a team who used to play functional and often uninspiring football under a cautious manager, in many ways very similar to NUFC under Rafa Benitez. Brighton took the ambitious step of replacing the safe pair of hands (and a genuine and proud human being) with a young, attacking philosophy. It could still go either way for the Seagulls, make no mistake, they could get relegated because of it. But what has happened is a young manager with limited experience has taken no time at all to change a team from a defensive and pragmatic one to an attacking and entertaining one. So if it has taken Graham Potter just a few weeks and games to do it, why hasn’t Steve Bruce, a manager with over two decades of experience done it? Maybe while Potter was getting his master’s degree in leadership and emotional intelligence, Bruce was busy learning the difference between a Rioja and a Merlot.

For me, Bruce has done himself no favours by not stamping his authority on the team. He is still living in Rafa Benitez’ shadow. We are playing a rubbish version of Rafa’s football, same organisation and tactics without the control over player movement or the knowledge of why they play like this and to what end.

If he wants to play attacking football, perhaps he should play less defenders and more attackers, start thinking about what he can do rather than what he can’t. Whatever he does, he needs a clean break from the previous and start making this look like his team, otherwise we will soon conclude that he is making it look like his team because he hasn’t a clue what he is doing except badly copying someone who did.

The pity for Bruce is that having seen a top manager with a plan following on from ones who didn’t, we know exactly what organised and committed football teams look like and how “sh..” they are when they are not (according to Fabian Schar).

We know when a manager is winging it, Alan Pardew was here for years. Bruce needs to stop being what Rafa was and try and be what Rafa wasn’t. That’s what he said he was going to do. The sooner he gets on with it, the better.

Stats from BBC Sport:

Newcastle 0 Brighton 0 – Saturday 21  September 5.30pm

Goals:

 

Possession was Brighton 71% Newcastle 29%

Total shots were Brighton 16 Newcastle 11

Shots on target were Brighton 3 Newcastle 4

Corners were Brighton 3 Newcastle 5

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Newcastle team v Brighton:

Dubravka, Manquillo, Schar (Fernandez 80), Lascelles, Dummett, Willems (Carroll 82), Hayden, Shelvey (Ki 73), Atsu, Almiron (Saint-Maximin 73), Joelinton

Unused Subs

Darlow, Muto, Krafth, Fernandez

Crowd: 43,360 (Looked less than 40,000 actually inside SJP (1,500 Brighton))

(Match ratings and comments on all NUFC players after Newcastle 0 Brighton 0 – Read HERE)

(Brighton boss gutted his team didn’t win – Read HERE)

(Watch official match highlights HERE)

(Steve Bruce reacts to the performance and result – read HERE)

(Read instant NUFC fan/writer reaction to the game HERE)

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