United have now played every other side in the PL at least once. In the case of Leicester, we’ve now played them home and away. Maybe now is as good a time as any to reflect on half a season of Steve Bruce as manager … sorry Head Coach.

I’ll start with the note that I never wanted Bruce at the club and no amount of spin from his friends in the press pack about last season’s results and points totals under Rafa will convince me the current incumbent can light a candle to Benitez and he never will.

So, with that in mind I might be accused of looking for things to fit a pre-determined narrative but I’ll let you decide that. 

IF YOU CAN’T BE GOOD, BE LUCKY

Few would argue Bruce’s team so far this season has carried some good fortune. The win over Spurs at their fancy new stadium saw us get more luck than I’ve ever known us have in any one game in over 45 years of a morbid interest in the Barrack Road Basket Case. The scene of Joelinton’s as yet only Newcastle United goal, Bruce’s team variously benefited from some woeful finishing from Tottenham strikers and very generous refereeing. On another day we could have ended up getting whipped.  Again, facing the worst Man U team since they were relegated in the 70s, United gathered in a further 3 points and Shelvey’s bizarre goal at Sheffield United as well as playing West Ham in the Pellegrini slump period can be described as good fortune. We did well to get a point at home to Man City and were fortunate to face a Bournemouth side going backwards. Palace left Gallowgate with Hodgson having  a face on him like  a dog liking piss off a nettle but maybe he had a ppint given the stats (if anyone takes any notice of such Americanised sports fan shite).  Maybe we also caught Southampton at the right time too and might have also carried some luck that afternoon too. Shame we couldn’t have played a shitty Silva Everton instead of catching them on an upward trajectory under Ancelotti. We were unable to beat a woeful Watford at SJP before the bugle call for Pearson but given we played Wolves after their EL exertions and squeezed a point from them, I think we can generally speaking say, Bruce has had the bounce of the ball, playing several teams on low ebbs and capturing points as a result.

Another area of good fortune for Bruce has been the goals that have chipped in by defenders whilst his attacking talent (ahem) has largely misfired to put it lightly.

Whether Schar, Clarke et al can continue to score the goals that bring home the points remains to be seen. Personally, I suspect that lucky streak running out of road very soon, if it hasn’t already.

GAME-PLAN

Bruce started his United tenure with lofty claims of football on the front foot, perhaps as a rebuke to Rafa who was variously criticized by media dullards for unattractive football. We on the other hand appeared to enjoy not getting walloped and watching  a tactically savvy  side, capable of grinding out results. That combined to a second half of last season when we played some good, attacking football with Almiron-Rondon-Perez meant we had something of an identity. My main points of criticism for Bruce now, is I see a regression in the team’s style and methods since last May. I don’t see any partnerships around the pitch and a complete inability to take the game to the opposition. The game plan relies upon ceding ground and possession to the opposition and relying on rare attacks, set-pieces and all of that to create goal-scoring opportunities. Admittedly that has borne fruit but in terms of developing a way of playing that can be built upon and developed, I just don’t see and believe tactically, it is all built on sand. 

Our attacking threat, such as it is, appears to me to be solely limited to getting balls down the flanks to variously Willems, Yedlin, Manquillo to cross balls for …. It appears to be mainly Andy Carroll (who quite shockingly in my opinion is the best striker on the club’s books). Joelinton, who notionally wears a No.9 on his back has been deployed in a weird inside right kind of position (sometimes) is rarely a goal threat and seldom gets into scoring positions. I was probably rare amongst supporters in being half pleased he got into scoring positions against Rochdale in the Cup … that’s a sign of progress in my opinion. 

Tactically, we appear to have very little of a threat from the centre of the park, where we frequently seem to be over-run and on the back-foot. We read Shelvey might be offered a new deal but frankly, if Jonjo is one good game in six I’d be surprised. Longstaff the Elder is a shadow of the maestro who came into the side last season and formed such a strong central pair with Hayden. That seems a long time ago now.

Bruce has described the team’s defensive capabilities as “rock-solid” though that now seems to be a laughable after a Christmas / New Year period in which we conceded 2 at home to Everton, 4 at Man U and 3 at home to Leicester. Although it’s a fair claim to say we could have had the FAC tie at Rochdale sorted before HT but for some abysmal finishing, we also have to concede that but for some poor finishing from the home side, who moved through our midfield and defence and created some decent chances of their own, their might be considerably more teeth grinding angst than there is currently. That wasn’t a 45 minutes to point to as evidence of the United defence being “rock solid”. 

Would it be churlish to bring up Willems dropping into the wrong position making his bow for the club or Hayden running to the dug-out telling the manager it isn’t working? Never had that before I don’t recall!

I may be being picky but I don’t see Bruce being able to be flexible within games. During the Wolves (h) game I watched Traore have the freedom of their right side and waited for Bruce to change it to respond. Nothing came and I felt we were a tad fortunate to finish that game with a less than energetic Wolves team.  His substitutions rarely appear to have any impact but if anyone can point to Bruce changing things around successfully then I’m all ears. The Rochdale game isn’t the first time when we’ve been decent in the first half and dire in the second. You might ask what goes on in the changing rooms between the 45s. 

Bruce might bristle at accusations of prehistoric tactics, demand respect, blah blah and his son may even behave as his social media minder but there have been games this season when the football from his team has been disjointed, incoherent and on some occasions, barely watchable.

TEAM-SPIRIT

Generally speaking the Rafa team spirit remains intact and “this bunch of lads” still appears on most days ready to give everything for the shirt. There are notable exceptions however. The collapse at Norwich was unforgivable as was the disgrace away to Leicester City which were Pardewesque in their completeness of their collapses. Overall, though the team does appear to be up for it.

CONDITIONING

Some of us were concerned about how ASM was brought back into the side earlier in the season following a hamstring injury. His subsequent relapse(s) has done nothing to convince the doubters that the conditioning of players under Bruce hasn’t gone backwards. The current malaise of soft tissue injuries amongst the walking wounded might be attributed to a hectic holiday schedule but those hacks who have been keen to compare results and league placings under Bruce to Rafa last season, might care to note we haven’t had these types of injuries … well, for the previous 3 seasons under Benitez. Indeed, I don’t recall such a crisis with injuries since the days of Graeme Souness and the blame he laid on the Darsley Park turf. I’m guessing most of you reading this, like me aren’t medically qualified to say specifically what is going on but we can point at certain instances – ASM for example and the current epidemic  of groin and hamstring strains to be worthy of note.

PLAYER DEVELOPMENT

Is there one player beyond Manquillo who is performing at a higher level and more consistently than they were last season? Its true Dubravka has kept us in games this season but the errors which have also cost us weren’t being made until this season. Dummett, (even when fit) who was scarcely out of the side under Rafa is now in the shadows (admittedly because Bruce may want to use his full-backs pushed on and pace that Dummy doesn’t have is needed). Shelvey remains an enigma but is unreliable whilst Longstaff the Elder’s progress appears to be stuttering too. Almiron, brought to specifically get the ball further up the pitch very quickly and to link with Perez and Rondon has struggled but thankfully retains the support of the SJP congregation.

Then there is the vexed question of Joelinton. This was a player offered to Rafa last year but the Spaniard is on the record as stating he didn’t think he was worth the money. Charnley and Nicksen have ignored that advice and allegedly spent 40 millions on the lad. Bruce has moved him from the centre-forward role he was unquestionably brought in to fulfil to that weird inside right role in an attempt to get a tune out of him. He rarely looks like scoring, he isn’t physically imposing and most damningly, just looks ineffective. Whether you believe the way United is set up works against the Brazilian or if you think he’ll need that oft-referred to first season settling in period isn’t relevant. United need goals and he has been brought into get them. It’s a moot point whether Bruce has a game plan that doesn’t work for him or well, Charnley and Nicksen should really have paid some heed to a man who knows rather more or about football than they ever will.

Elsewhere, Krafth appears to have takenGamez/ Lazaar’s spot as the great never used full-back of SJP and right now looks like a great way of squandering the usual 6 millions on a duff player.

ASM has barely played due to that hamstring injury so Willems (on-loan) looks to be the best of the new batch.

There is of course Matty Longstaff (now able to speak to clubs on the continent because he hasn’t yet signed a new deal) who has made his PL bow and scored a memorable winner against Man U on his debut. He hasn’t nailed down a place as yet but maybe he should be out playing regular Championship football to build match fitness and get game time as part of his development? Maybe that would happen at a proper club.

Although they have reminded us they are still alive in recent weeks, Bruce appears to have achieved very little with Ki, Muto and Gayle.

SUMMARY

I’ll accept Bruce has, results-wise done better than I expected. However, displays such as those at Villa and Burnley were everything I expected when he was appointed. He has not yet had those who go to games getting on his back in big numbers just yet but neither has he formed any serious kind of connection with the wider support either. United are a poor team to watch, unexciting and largely going nowhere on Bruce’s watch. There is of course the background of Ashley but he knew all about him and how he runs the club so I don’t think that is a viable defence.

Attendances have continued to fall and but for free half season tickets being shoveled in the direction of 10,000 random freeloaders those grey empty spaces around SJP would be widening.

Bruce isn’t inspiring anyone –  he is simply doing little more than keeping the plates spinning for Ashley. Bruce, deliberately given the job title as Head Coach, has no grand plan and strategy for the club and without a Director of Football to take that on, you have to wonder how that is happening.

Lee Charnley doesn’t fancy himself in that role does he?

Overall though, Bruce, as mediocre as his managerial career suggests (where has he left a legacy?) remains the symptom rather than the cause of the Newcastle United stasis. Like Pardew and McClaren, Bruce is too grateful for the job (knowing there wouldn’t be another PL club who’d offer him a way back to the top level) to challenge Ashley and will be content not to rock the boat. He will suffer the indignities Rafa wouldn’t and given we have seen the Ashley way fail  before, Bruce will have to cope with that because of the club was better run, more vibrant and energetic, then it wouldn’t have him there.

Those 25 points at Christmas are a God-send. I’d expect Bruce’s team to be able to blag their way to another 13-15 points from the 17 remaining games and avoid relegation.

That will be job done for Bruce and his bosses. Start again next season. Great eh?

MICHAEL MARTIN