Watch the 1980 comedy classic Airplane!, drive from Newcastle to Harrogate or cook 6 Jamie Oliver 15 Minute Meals. Just some of the more exciting 90 minute activities you could’ve been enjoying instead of watching the excruciatingly poor encounter between Newcastle United and Norwich on Saturday.
As we’ve been used to, the groanfest at St James’ Park did nothing to quell suggestions Steve Bruce bought a wish-making monkey’s paw back in the summer, giving him the power of amassing ill-deserved Premier League points for all of eternity.
Of course, I’m being tongue-in-cheek. We all know that unless something changes tactically, monkey’s paw or not, this fortune won’t last. Even when we’ve won games, or chalked up credible draws, the over-reliance on Martin Dubravka to save goals and our defenders to score goals simply isn’t sustainable.
After the toothless performance against lowly Oxford United, Saturday’s home fixture against bottom-of-the-league Norwich was a chance to ditch the overly cautious shackles and see what this team could do with focus on freedom of expression.
Instead, the one-size-fits-all 5-2-3 formation we’ve lined up with for most of the season got yet another outing. Obviously, I’m not so short-sighted to understand that playing 5-2-3 in general can still yield plenty of attacking play. But looking at this game, once again, we sat far too deep, lacked impetus and struggled to create more than one meaningful chance in the entire game.
Norwich enjoyed more spells of possession and indeed created three ‘big chances’ in comparison to Newcastle’s single big chance. Two of these happened to fall to Teemu Pukki’s left foot, who still looked energetic and sharp, asking questions of our back line.
In stark contrast, Joelinton was comfortably marshalled by ex-Mag Grant Hanley, who each came closest to scoring for Newcastle in the first and second half respectfully. It was not a good day for the frustrating and frustrated Brazilian.
There was a lack of innovation from the home side, who were missing all of their long range passers; Jonjo Shelvey remained injured, while Florian Lejeune and Fabian Schar failed to get the nod from the bench.
This hampered our ability to break on the counter fast enough to catch the Canaries off-guard. By the time we had passed the ball through the lines (as if through treacle) to Almiron, he had Joelinton 25 yards away, the rest of the team even further away, and seven red shirts swarming around him.
On the all too rare occasion our forward line high pressed the visitors from a goal kick or with Tim Krul in possession, their defence made mistakes or hoofed the ball long against their will. Therefore, it seems baffling that we didn’t further exploit this throughout the 90 minutes, especially given the away side dominated possession.
Out of the substitutions, only Lazaro looked particularly eager to get things moving in the final third, much like Fede Fernandez in the first half. Danny Rose got some minutes under his belt and I’d like to think he and the Austrian will take up the wide berths for true formational balance moving forward.
But it’s clear the current tactics are completely ineffective against teams we really should be seeing off. Daniel Farke was furious his team didn’t take their chances and secure what would have been a deserved and crucial three points, and rightly so.
The raucous boos from the Geordie faithful on the full time whistle told their own story, though. As pleasantly surprising as 31 points, 12th place and staying seven points clear of the relegation zone is (and they really are the most important stats), there is little confidence that Steve Bruce’s fortuitous point-scraping is going to last.
Paying fans deserve better than that turgid display on Saturday, and they’re only too aware of how close the wheels are to coming off. We will stumble over the Premier League survival finish line come May, Wacky Races-style, only without much enjoyment or entertainment.
It’s a precarious and illogical algorithm, and Bruce desperately needs a more robust Plan A to restore faith in his methods.