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Opinion

He may not have written this controversial Steve Bruce headline but the controversy remains…

1 month ago
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‘We are six games into this weird, artificial campaign of empty stadiums and adrenaline deprived spectacles and Newcastle are the same team, despite a decent summer of recruitment given the money available to spend, as they were last season.’

To those unable or unwilling to go beyond the paywall, it may come as a surprise that these quotes come from a Luke Edwards (who covers Newcastle United for The Telegraph) article on Tuesday.

The controversial headline, which he did not write, proclaimed that, ‘Steve Bruce’s performance as Newcastle manager has been good – but to some that will never be enough.’

It was a slightly misleading headline, perhaps intentionally, as what he actually says in the article is that, for him:

‘Managers are ultimately judged solely on results and results are good. Nothing spectacular, nothing to get excited about, nothing to crow about but Newcastle have played nine this season in all competitions, won five, drawn two and lost two.’

Taking the cup games against one Championship side at St. James’ Park and two away trips to League Two (even lower than Sunderland) sides skews the results towards a realm that even his most stubborn critics would have to admit is ‘good’.

However, Premier League results paint a different picture. Since Bruce took over as head coach, Newcastle United has played 44 league games and won 13 of them. That gives a win percentage of 29.55%. The team has also conceded three goals or more in 11 of those 44 league games. That is 25% of our games!

‘They are the same sort of team they were under his predecessor Rafa Benitez. An inconsistent midtable outfit that tends to get its best results playing with a back five, little possession and a very sporadic goal threat.’

Newcastle finished with 12 wins both times (scoring 39 and 42) in Benitez’s two full seasons in the Premier League and finished with 11 wins (scoring 38) in Bruce’s first, so there’s no arguing that in terms of results, we are the same sort of team.

However, the same very sporadic goal threat claim is not backed up by the statistics, which show a consistent and steady decline in three main attacking metrics:

It is easy to get lost in these comparisons but the point of his article wasn’t a Benitez versus Bruce analysis. The overall topic was the bigger picture that this mediocrity is what Newcastle has become as a football club. He rightly points out that, with the exception of the 2011/12 season, we have been ‘trapped in purgatory’ and ‘locked in chains of mediocrity’.

Our average league position under Ashley is 13th and so Bruce’s first season mirrored Benitez’s last in achieving this underwhelming par. In that respect, it is hard to argue with Luke’s assessment that Bruce is not failing as Newcastle manager:

‘For some of us, he is doing about as well as anyone can in the circumstances. He is surviving, getting by, which is basically what Newcastle have been doing for the last 16 years.’

If you agree with Luke that managers are ultimately judged solely on results then Bruce is doing about as well as anyone can, or indeed has, in the Ashley era. There are, however, different ways of achieving the same end goal if survival is to be the height of your ambition as a football club.

Last season, West Ham finished three places below Newcastle. However, they scored 49 goals to our 38. As a fan, would you prefer those three additional places in the bottom half of the table or would you prefer eleven more goals; eleven more explosions of limbs; eleven more memories? As a fan, does it really matter whether you finish 13th or 16th?

Luke does accept that where Bruce can be criticised is his failure to achieve progress towards playing a more attacking style and offering more entertainment:

‘He has not been able to transition to a more open, fluid attacking game despite trying to do so.’

It seems likely that it is here where fans find their biggest issue with those (both within the club and outside of it) who point out that the team is performing to its Ashley era baseline. I polled recently on Twitter whether fans viewed games as all about the points tally towards survival or whether they’d be willing to risk fewer points for a more expansive, attacking style.

Although a simplistic question, 30% responded with ‘All about the points’ while 70% chose ‘Attack, I’m bored!’ Of course, the reality is that their views are more nuanced than the options available but it highlights the general feeling within the fanbase – a feeling that this team is capable of entertaining us and that they are being unnecessarily prevented from doing so.

Liverpool 4-3 Leeds

Man Utd 1-3 Crystal Palace

West Brom 3-3 Chelsea

West Ham 4-0 Wolves

Leicester 0-3 West Ham

Aston Villa 7-2 Liverpool

Chelsea 3-3 Southampton

Tottenham 3-3 West Ham

In a season of chaos and unpredictability, Newcastle United remains the last bastion of banality. As teams who finished around, or even below, us last season embrace offensive football, Newcastle manage to be offensive only to the eyes.

With arguably the most talented group of attacking players to put on the black and white since the 2011/12 season, there is no excuse for this. With no chance of European qualification and little tangible benefit to fans from finishing in the fabled Top Ten, rather than thirteenth, this is the realistic progress fans are looking for.

‘One day it will return to something like its former glory but that is not going to happen with Ashley as owner., whoever the manager is, because they have a midtable budget, midtable aspirations and a midtable squad.’

You can’t argue with any of that but while we’re stuck in that midtable mire of mediocrity, we can still expect entertainment. Results have been ‘nothing spectacular, nothing to get excited about, nothing to crow about’ but that doesn’t mean that the football needs to match. Give me a 3-3 over a 1-1; give me a 4-3 defeat over a 1-0 defeat.

‘He is doing about as well as anyone can in the circumstances’ can surely only be said about the results as what we are watching from a squad containing Callum Wilson, Allan Saint-Maximin, Miguel Almirón, Ryan Fraser et al. is not as good as anyone could manage to produce.

Managers are ultimately judged by owners solely on results but to the many thousands of us watching on from home, there is little pleasure in this ‘getting by’ approach to survival. Last season, West Ham, Southampton, Brighton and Aston Villa all outscored Newcastle and they are doing the same again so far this season.

‘He has been manager, sorry head coach, since August 2019 and his team, generally speaking, remains as difficult to watch now as it was last season.’

Luke is right but it could actually be argued that Newcastle are an even more difficult watch than last season. The table shown earlier demonstrates that the team has dropped off in all three of the chosen attacking metrics. This is a team with Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis added to its attacking balance and potency and playing in a world where all semblance of normality has been temporarily discarded.

If results are all you care about, I’m happy for you that this season will likely bring you the same pleasure as the one before; and the one before; and the one before. The status quo continues, endlessly.

Behind the paywall, Luke’s article told a different story to the universally available headline. Behind the results, so does Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United.

(This article originally appeared on the excellent NE1’s Game website, you can also follow them on Twitter @game_ne1)

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