How many of us were surprised United lost at Palace? Go on, really … how many thought we’d go to Selhurst Park and do anything other than stink the place out and lose?

Not many, I’d guess.

It’s hard to disagree with Palace boss Roy Hodgson who made the claim his team could and should have scored more goals. But for the acrobatics of Dubravka his team would have won more handsomely.

I read Bruce’s comments last week about Joelinton and the penny dropped – everything this bloke says is rubbish. Let’s recap on Bruce’s description of Joelinton:

“The great strikers, the goalscorers, all they’re interested in is scoring a goal – Joe is not like that.
‘He certainly hasn’t got that mentality. He is more a team player. He has to be a bit more selfish. He doesn’t get himself in the positions enough, that’s something we’re working on.
‘The only thing we can do is keep encouraging the lad. He might not be a natural goalscorer, but we know there is talent there.
‘He has to live with the criticism because he becomes the whipping boy unfortunately.’

Let’s just stop there for a second.

Let’s put aside the fact that Joelinton was handed the No.9 shirt and plays week after week as the team’s central striker. Bruce has described Joelinton as a team-player. What does that actually mean though?

Now I’m of an age where I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of Newcastle United strikers but in terms of working for the team, I’d pick out David Kelly, Antoine Sibierski and Salomon Rondon as the best at doing the hard yards as an attacking player without being known as truly prolific in the Andy Cole, Supermac mould.

I simply do not see Joelinton running the channels, pressing defenders, winning headers, holding the ball up and playing team-mates in. It is an absolute nonsense for Bruce to describe Joelinton as a team-player and in fact he is asking us all to ignore the evidence of our own eyes to do so.

Failing to get into the box and into goal-scoring positions isn’t playing for the team – making a target of himself, showing for crosses, winning headers (as per Carroll earlier this season) and knock-downs is playing for the team. I see nothing in Joelinton’s game to suggest anything of the sort.

But Bruce can only offer encouragement to the lad? Is that it? No coaching? No tactical re-think? None of that stuff?

Bruce did have money to spend in January apparently. The club (ahem) made a massive bid for some French midfielder who there is no chance of bringing to United in the summer, so I wonder how much time was wasted on that fool’s errand. But it decided against bringing in a striker to either replace Joelinton or play alongside him, you know like in a Perez type of role. This is what Bruce said about bringing in a striker:

“The reason why we didn’t sign a striker in January? I felt that those who were available weren’t any better than Dwight Gayle. I keep saying that I think a lot of him. He’s a very good footballer I hope he stays injury free now.”

Well, Gayle is a Championship striker by common consensus who the club has been attempting to sell for months and may have done but for his injury. He has never delivered at the PL level.  If Bruce really expects us to believe there are no strikers better than Gayle to be had to come to the world’s most lucrative league then that is some hope on his part. Indeed, we have learnt only this last weekend that Salomon Rondon was ready to return to Gallowgate so Bruce is potentially telling porkies or he gets as far with Ashley as Benitez did – that wouldn’t be any surprise despite all the stuff about “transfer summits” at the training ground blah blah blah.

But on Gayle … well, he rates him that highly that he kept him until the71st minute, preferring the not-fussed-about-scoring centre-forward Joelinton who has scored one PL goal this entire season and according t the manager doesn’t get into positions to even look like he’s going to either.

Let’s go back to the tactics.

This Bruce back in October:

‘They’ve played a certain way and that certain way has been drilled into them. We have to start with that again. If that’s the way they play, I understand that, that’s what we’ll do. ‘

Well, not really. Bruce’s teams are not playing anything like the Rafa team of the second half of last season. The signing of Almiron transformed the team’s style and allowed us to get up the park much quicker. Almiron was the catalyst for a great refinement in our counter-attacking style. Perez’s form following the Almiron signing was transformed and with Rondon the team had an attacking potency that is completely absent now. The key thing about Perez and Rondon was both were able to hold the ball play up and others could get forward to join in. Both made runs and showed for the ball – exploiting passes from midfield – the ball wasn’t lost as quickly and particularly at home we were a decent side to watch. Both won free kicks … all of that stuff …

In January 2019, United beat Cardiff 3-0 at SJP as well as Man City 2-1. In February we lost narrowly to Spurs at Wembley and were probably a bit unlucky. We were on the end of some terrible refereeing at Wolves and were disappointed with a 1-1 draw. We finished the month by beating Huddersfield and Burnley 2 zip in successive home games.  In March we hilariously beat Jordan Pickford’s Everton 3-2 in front of a buoyant Gallowgate End. In March we went to Leicester and won 1-0 with one of the best performances of the Rafa era when the competiveness and desire of Benitez’s team was hailed by fans and commentators alike. In April we swatted Southampton convincingly 3-1 on Barrack Road. Rafa’s last game at SJP was a barnstorming game with Champions League-elect Liverpool when but for a poor refereeing decision we’d not have lost to an Origi winner and gained a credible draw. Rafa signed off with a 4-0 win at Craven Cottage over doomed Fulham.

It is simply factually incorrect for Bruce to claim the team he is putting out is playing to the same way as Benitez teams because they need to be weaned off that style of play. It is arrant nonsense and does not hold up to any scrutiny. That’s not to suggest Rafa’s teams weren’t always an easy watch – but there was a plan, they were organised and the Spaniard was showing how his team could be developed further. Rafa’s team was a work in progress and that is the key word … progress. Where is Bruce’s team going?

Then there is the small matter of Bruce’s personnel. There were only six out-field players who turned in another turgid display at Palace who were available to Rafa last season.  They are:, Fernandez, Lascelles, Schar, Ritchie Almiron , S.Longstaff. Three of them are defenders.

Bruce is talking out of his back-side to suggest he is working with players addicted to playing a version of how he would like others to think Rafa’s teams played. It is nonsense on stilts.

Bruce’s saving grace is United is still in the FA Cup, a feat he described as “feeling significant”. His team was unable to defeat L2 Rochdale at the first attempt and indeed might be described as being fortunate to still be in the Cup and have a second bite at the cherry at SJP. Bruce’s side were also held to an excruciating nils apiece with L1 Oxford at SJP and needed extra time at the Kassam to see off the home team after questionable substitutions from the Head Coach allowed a dead and buried team back into it. I’m not sure what “feeling significant” means in Bruce’s head but stretching the luck of the draw to breaking point is certainly no evidence of a corner turned.

By any measure however, the points total a month ago felt better than many expected. However Bruce bridles at suggestions he has been lucky and describes it as “an insult”. But who can say anything other than good fortune played a part in the win at Spurs when on another day Lascelles would have been sent off for rugby tackles on Harry Kane and penalties given or the Tottenham front men putting their shooting boots on? Who’d lay any claim to anything but good fortune for the point saved at Everton when the home team switched off? Or 3-points gained at home to Chelsea with the only attack of the match?

Even the win at Sheffield United had the patina of the bizarre about it.

Or let’s be honest, the team’s stand-out performer of 2019/20, Martin Dubravka being in excellent form? Without the Slovak barely having a poor game God knows where Bruce’s team would be.

Bruce has also proven to be touchy about his tactical acumen … though playing Willems in a central midfield role then changing his mind shortly afterwards at SJP didn’t inspire confidence and neither did Hayden running to the dug-out with a desperate statement of fact that “this isn’t working”.

This is from September when Bruce’s tactics were questioned after collapses at Norwich:

“I think that’s the biggest insult I can have. Graham Potter changed Brighton’s formation four times during last week’s game [a 0-0 home draw]. Graham’s radically changed Brighton’s style and I want to change my team’s too, but I won’t do it radically. It’ll be gradual, it won’t be overnight. Last season Newcastle were second bottom of the Premier League in the respect of keeping possession.  If we’re to improve, it’s something we have to get better at – we have to keep the ball better.”

I’ll leave you to decide if United’s possession football since September has improved. It doesn’t feel like it has to me and the evidence of Norwich (h), Burnley (a) and now Palace (a) amongst many others would hardly suggest Bruce has improved his team’s ability to keep the ball for more than five seconds. I struggle to see any of the players Bruce inherited as having improved with Shaun Longstaff having gone furthest backwards so quickly from the elegant midfielder of last season who drew comparisons to Michael Carrick.

But now following a succession of poor results and worse performances, Bruce is thinking about changing tactics again:

“Maybe it’s time for a change, maybe it’s time we tried something different”.

That might beg the questions – what exactly? Why now? Why not earlier? And do you have a clue how to do it?

We have seen appalling football this season – it is palpable nonsense to claim otherwise. Likewise the style of play is nothing like it what was last season under Rafa. It is wholly misleading to suggest Bruce is playing continuity Benitez football. Fair play to Bruce he has so far maintained the team-spirit invested in the team after relegation in 2016 – though we’ll see how long that lasts.

By and large Bruce gets a pass. There is no doubt he has friendships with several journalists who cover NE football and they are unwilling to wade in as much as they might  if they regarded Bruce as less of a canny lad – which he may be of course – I’m not really interested if he is nice to children and animals or indulges the local press pack with buffets at the County Hotel on Gosforth High Street.

But the coverage he receives is generous to say the least. Few seem to want to fall out with “Brucie”.

How long that can be sustained, I don’t know but I doubt it will extend beyond a failure to collect 3 points at home to Burnley and go out the Cup to West Brom.

Then the patter will be really interesting.

Keep On, Keepin’ On …

Michael Martin