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Opinion

Just the two of us, we can make it if we try

10 months ago
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The aftermath of an unexpected and impressive Newcastle win was always going to play out exactly how it did this weekend.

The timing and manner of the Graeme Jones appointment, and the media fanfare that went with it, had already put Steve Bruce in a lose-lose position.

Had Newcastle lost the game, calls for his dismissal would have no doubt increased and the rumoured raison d’être of Jones gained further traction.

However, Newcastle played their most complete performance of the season, won and the social media praise – for that is all we currently have access to – went to Graeme Jones rather than Steve Bruce. Whether the away end would have serenaded the players with, “Graeme Jones’ Black ‘n’ White Army!” is unknown but Twitter was certainly filled with it. We ran a poll asking that exact question and 80% responded that an away end would have been singing those very words and it was not just a social media trend.

Of course, none of us outside the club know what influence Jones has had on the team in the short time between his appointment and the lunchtime kick off at Goodison Park. Perhaps even those within the club would be unable to quantify his impact as a number of things changed, including the performances of several individual players. The problem that Bruce has is that, to those who have watched their team go on a lengthy winless run, it all seems a little coincidental that Newcastle finally play well and win so convincingly at the end of the new man’s first week at the club.

After eighteen months of Newcastle United’s solo mouthpiece’s words being increasingly scrutinised by communication-starved fans, the club gave the new coach the media platform usually only afforded to star signings. During the interviews, fans heard Jones speak about a couple of key areas that add weight to those suggesting his influence over Saturday’s performance:

“We have got some good players who didn’t start the other night. It is getting them in a system that suits them. That’s my first thoughts on this job.”

Bruce has spoken about players returning and being available for selection but this does not fully explain Saturday’s shift in system. After all, the same players were available for both the Aston Villa game and the Leeds game but Newcastle did not set up this way.

Having Hayden back in that holding role was key and allowed the full backs to advance – particularly the impressive Manquillo, who had more touches than any Newcastle player in the middle third of the pitch and was second only to Wilson for opponent pressures in the attacking third. It also allowed Hayden himself to influence that central area. The midfielder finished the game with more touches, more passes, more carries, more tackles and more pressures than either Shelvey or Hendrick – the first time he has led the midfield in all five of those categories in a single game this season.

Getting Almirón and Fraser closer to Wilson was another adjustment that hugely increased Newcastle’s attacking threat. Nobody benefited more than the striker himself, as he enjoyed more touches and shots than in any other game this season, scored two and could have scored as many as five. Having cut an isolated and rather dejected-looking figure in recent games, the pace and energy of his support cast – but, most importantly, their proximity to him – allowed Wilson to influence and dominate Newcastle’s attacking threat.

“I think the big thing for me is always to control games with the ball and you can control games without the ball as well. There needs to be that balance.”

In terms of controlling the game with the ball, Newcastle have never had 50% possession in a Premier League game so far this season, with a season average of 39%. However, if we take 40% possession (Saturday’s possession stat) as an under/over benchmark, the team has played ten games with 40% or more and eleven games with less than 40%.

Newcastle have taken 16 points from the 10 games with 40% possession or more (1.6 points per game) and 6 points from the 11 games with less than 40% possession (0.55 points per game).

Saturday’s game saw the highest number of touches in the attacking third by Newcastle all season (166), beating a record of 151 that stood for only a few days since the Leeds game on Tuesday. The number of touches in the attacking penalty area was also the highest since week one away at West Ham.

Progressive passing (passing towards the opponent’s goal) is another area that can be spit into two clear sections. Newcastle’s average total distance for this statistic is 2065 yards per game, with Saturday’s game seeing a total of 2190 yards.

The team has fallen below this average nine times, picking up just one win and four points along the way (0.4 points per game). In the twelve games above the average, Newcastle have won five times and picked up eighteen points (1.5 points per game).

Without the ball, the team pressed high up the pitch in the first half and there were regular sights of four or five Newcastle players in Everton’s defensive third. In addition to this, although not always a reliable indicator of intensity and aggression, Newcastle picked up four yellow cards. It was widely commented after the passive non-performance at Arsenal that Newcastle barely laid a glove on their opponents (presumably because they’d been taken off) but this was certainly not the case on Saturday.

“Ultimately it is up to Steve whether he uses that opinion or advice or little bits of it to help us going forward.”

This final point made by Jones is an important one and one that adds some balance to the debate. Whether fans like it or not, Steve Bruce is still in charge and any final decisions will have been his to make. Even if Jones was instrumental in the change of approach – again, we have no idea whether he was or wasn’t – Bruce would have to make the call to change formation, change system, change selection. If he has recognised the need for change and taken the advice and new ideas on board, then fair play to him. Rather that, than to stubbornly resist it.

Ultimately, other than creating social media debate for the weekend, it doesn’t really matter who was responsible for Saturday or who receives the plaudits. Much like Newcastle’s non-takeover, who and how matters little, for it is the end result that is all-important. There are already camps, in which some are firmly settled, who will claim that one person or one moment resulted in the desired outcome and they are unlikely to change their mind on that. So what? We can all enjoy it when it happens, regardless of who predicted it, claimed it or engineered it.

Newcastle United played well and won a game but it is just that – one game. The team has only managed back-to-back Premier League wins once so far this season, when an away win at Crystal Palace was followed by a home win against West Brom. The gap to eighteenth is now eight points, although Fulham have a game in hand, and there is a long road ahead for the teams in the wrong half of the league table.

This season has provided other surprisingly convincing wins but just as fans allowed themselves to be positive, they were instantly brought back down. Arguably, Newcastle’s best three results prior to this weekend were 2-0 at West Ham, 3-1 at home to Burnley and the 2-1 home win against Everton. All three games were followed by disappointing defeats (0-3 vs Brighton, 1-4 vs Man Utd and 0-2 vs Southampton). We have been here before and that is why very few are getting carried away with the first win since December 12th.

The wait for the next game is never a long one and Tuesday presents Newcastle with the chance to not only win consecutive games but to add a second team to their double list, following beating Everton both home and away.

The benchmark was set on Merseyside and must be carried to St. James’ Park, otherwise Newcastle and Bruce are back to square one before a difficult trio of fixtures against much tougher opponents.

Whether you’re singing (or Tweeting), “Graeme Jones’ Black ‘n’ White Army” on Tuesday night, or whether you’re Luke Edwards et al. flying the Bruce banner (don’t make him angry), it really doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that Newcastle United and the players who put on the black and white maintain the standard that they just confirmed they are capable of.

The only losers, other than Jordan Pickford, to come out of Saturday’s game are those who have spent the season claiming that this squad of players is not capable of playing the way they just did. The idea that Steve Bruce was maximising their potential and achieving all that he could achieve with them has just been debunked.

Expectations have been raised but not to levels of unrealism or delusion. Rather, expectations of performance have been raised and they must be maintained. The fans have said for a long time that this team is capable of so much more than they have shown – well, they have just shown it. Players have returned, post-COVID fatigue has eased, the new coach is in, the system has been changed, the excuses have ran out. Time to deliver.

Howay the lads.

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

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