St James’ Park, 2/Feb/21. KO: 20:15. 

For twenty minutes we picked up where we left off against Everton. Purposeful in midfield, Almiron everywhere, Wilson immense. Even after a suicidal five minutes in the middle of the first half, we bounced back and created five good chances in ten minutes after the half-hour mark. But then came the second half and all progress nullified by hapless substitutions, as if throwing on as many attacking players as possible was the best way to chase the game. Back to Bruce’s Barrack Road under-9s. Shapeless and clueless.

Four weeks ago, I had this match circled as Bruce’s last stand, his Bournemouth moment, a home fixture against a limited side which would constitute the tipping-point after a series of increasingly morale-sapping defeats. Of course, that all changed in the space of 90 astonishing minutes at Goodison, as, somehow, a defibrillator was applied to a season that had long since been on life support.

Ahead of the match the assumption had been that Lascelles and Fraser would miss out, the latter opening the door for Alan Saint-Maximin’s first start in more than two months. In the event, Fraser had risen Lazarus-like from his unspecified bout of illness and Clark was the only change from Graeme’s Goodison heroes. With Willock ineligible, the new triangle at the base of midfield was again made up of Hayden – two games in a row in midfield (!) – Shelvey and Hendrick, each of those two no doubt looking anxiously over their shoulders at the new arrival.

Meanwhile, the visitors made two changes from the team that nicked a win against Wolves on Saturday. Cahill came into central defence for Kayoté, while Riedewald moved into the centre of midfield for James McCarthur. That left ex-Mag Andros Townsend on the bench, with former Mackem (and briefly Mag) van Aanholt at left back. As ever, the main threat promised to come from Zaha, together with this season’s new signing from QPR, Eberechi Eze, who scored the winner at the weekend, and Batshuyi, once much coveted at Chelsea.

Even those of us believing that Goodison offered real hope of sustained change could hardly believe what happened next. With barely a minute gone, Fraser nodded on, and Almiron did really well to nick the ball away from the defender and to lift it across to Wilson in the centre. With his back to goal, he held off two or three defenders and chested it back to find Shelvey whose shot from the edge of the box, as he drove forward, had power and whistled into the bottom left-hand corner. Hendrick went close and then Wilson shot narrowly over with an improvised backheel flick, and it looked like there could only be one winner.

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But then the game was turned on its head in the space of five minutes. First, Darlow put Lewis under unnecessary pressure with a poor pass out. Palace recycled possession for an extended period and, when the ball broke on the edge of the box, Riedewald hit a drive with stunning power. A deflection from Clark in front of Darlow gave the keeper no chance. Then, Eze whipped in a free kick from the right, Cahill made a curved run from the back post, lost his markers, and powered the header in. When Zaha had a goal ruled out at the far post for Batshuyi’s offside, it felt like we had no answer to the pace and dynamism of Palace’s forwards.

But back we came in a ten-minute spell in which we created more chances than in all ten games prior to Everton. First, Fraser shot tamely when things opened up for him. Then, Wilson slid an impossible looking ball to the same player, whose dinked finish was saved well by Guaita. Next Almiron’s free kick clipped both the wall and the bar. Finally, Schär missed twice past the same post: the first time with a header in space from a corner, the second an angled drive from 25 yards reminiscent of his goal at the same end against Cardiff.

And that was as good as it got. The final five minutes of the first half saw a worrying retreat to sideways passes as the midfield got dragged deeper and deeper, a trend that persisted throughout the second half. After his introduction Saint-Maximin made a couple of trademark runs past Clyne, but more often he was double-marked. Shelvey and Schär both had tame headers and wild long-range shots, but that was as close as we got, save for Carroll’s weak header in injury-time. If anyone was going to score it was Palace on the break, Townsend missing as the clocked ticked over to 90 minutes when it seemed so much easier to score.

But by then, the game had long since escaped us. In fact, the rot set in when Bruce pulled Hendrick for Saint-Maximin after 63 minutes. Presumably, the manager’s watch was running two minutes fast. Instead of swapping like for like, Bruce sacrificed the midfield shape that had opened space and given us control, even if Hendrick and Shelvey had been rather more pedestrian than at Everton. The 4312 became 4231, or perhaps 4141. It was difficult to tell. Then Gayle came on for Manquillo and Fraser was moved hopelessly out of position to right back. Good to know some things never change in Bruce-ball. The last throw of the dice saw Carroll shoved up front, but by now we were a shapeless mess with no way to manoeuvre the ball and create openings.

And, so, the second half was as dispiriting as the Everton match had been uplifting. In the first forty-five minutes, it made a pleasant change to watch an actual game of football at St James’ Park, well-balanced, competitive, one we were losing but had every prospect of getting back into. The second half was a regression to Bruce’s desperate lack of tactical acumen, as we again finished the match with six attacking players but no discernible goal threat.

Where do we go from here? Much will depend on whether Bruce returns to the system which paid such dividends on Saturday and also tonight in the first half. It feels like hope is still there. But we desperately need results, and the prospect of another collapse in confidence and direction, and a retreat back into the bunker, feels all too likely under this thin-skinned and fatally limited manager. The patient showed signs of life, but remains very much on the critical list.

MATTHEW PHILPOTTS – @mjp19731