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A 24 game comparison on formation and effectiveness – Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez

10 months ago

For a long long time now, it feels as though the passion has been steadily draining out of Newcastle United Football Club.

We have seen many managers walk through the doors of St James Park during the last decade but none connected with the fans quite like Rafa Benitez.

He was a beacon of hope to the Newcastle fans, a sign that things could get better, with an unbelievable show of faith in the Championship season seeing St James Park full on a regular basis and an average home crowd of over 51,000.

For an overwhelming majority of fans of this historic football club, the current Head Coach is a far cry from the man he succeeded.

A combination of long-term disillusionment with Mike Ashley and the shorter-term impact of Steve Bruce’s style of football, took crowds down towards the 40,000 mark last season, leading to the incredible sight of the owner giving away 10,000 half season tickets to fill the massive number of empty seats.

However, is the continued criticism of Steve Bruce unjust?

After all, he did finish last season with only one point less than the “mighty Rafa.”

On face value, Bruce has a strong case, but it is only when you delve into the statistics that you can truly understand the reasons behind the predicament Newcastle find themselves in.

Looking at the statistics (before the Leeds home match on Tuesday), Steve Bruce had managed Newcastle for 24 games in all competitions this season, but, as the luck ran out, results gradually started to catch up performances. In comparison, Rafa’s final 24 games in all competitions provide a stark contrast.

This season, Bruce has regularly fluctuated between formations, mainly 4-4-2 and 5-4-1. He has used either of these formations in 20 out 24 games this season, setting up with a 4-4-2 formation 11 times and 5-4-1 formation 9 times.

In contrast, Benitez, lined up with a 5-4-1 formation 21 times across his final 24 games.

Could the continual formation changes by Bruce have had a detrimental impact on a team criticised for their inconsistency this season?

Now, I have heard some fans claim that Bruce sets up more attacking-minded than Benitez and they’d “rather lose going for it than sitting back and getting beaten anyway.”

In terms of formation, you could argue Bruce sets Newcastle up more attacking than Benitez; he has played 4-4-2 more times than he has played 5-4-1 this season. However, the statistics show that despite setting the team up to apparently be more defensive, Benitez’ Newcastle were more of a threat than the current Newcastle team. In those final 24 games, Benitez’ team had more than two shots on target in 13 games as opposed to Bruce’s 10 games.

Whilst the attacking threat for Bruce’s Newcastle does increase when they play 4-4-2 and in 5/10 games they recorded more than two shots on target, the gulf between his team and Benitez’ team becomes more apparent when they play 5-4-1.

In the 21 games Rafa Benitez set up in 5-4-1, Newcastle recorded more than two shots on target 11 times. In contrast, in the games when Steve Bruce has played 5-4-1, his team managed to record more than two shots on target only one time in nine games. Yes, once. The comparison is clear; both teams set up to be hard to beat and whilst Rafa’s one still offers an attacking threat, Bruce’s offers next to nothing at the other end of the pitch.

Yes, Benitez’ football was dull at times but there was a clear plan that was consistent throughout the season. Newcastle had an identity as a hard to beat team that could always offer a threat on the counter.

What identity do they have now?

Under Steve Bruce, it appears as though Newcastle’s only hope of offering an attacking threat is playing 4-4-2. Even then, as the stats show, there is no guarantee that there will be shots, let alone goals. It seems then, as they have done for the majority of the season, Newcastle fans must rely on individual moments of brilliance or luck to win games.


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