So far, the Steve Bruce era at Newcastle United has been characterised by tactical confusion, an identity crisis and the resulting torment which inevitably follows.
Players don’t know their positions or their roles, and not only are the fans and the media noticing the disarray, but it’s been all too easy for opposition teams to identify and exploit.
The phrase ‘tactical dinosaur’ seems to be an easily-repeatable stick to beat the Head Coach with, but there’s far more truth to this lazy slur than many might appreciate.
Since Steve Bruce last graced the Premier League with his maverick ways, there has been a sea change with regards to the way clubs approach managerial recruitment, and a huge trend towards wider club philosophy.
Consider two of the three newly promoted sides; Norwich City and Sheffield United. Both featured in the inaugural season of England’s rebranded elite league competition. And both are armed with a defined tactical style that they hope will help them acquire enough points to stay for a second term.
Daniel Farke’s energetic high-pressing not only steam-rolled Newcastle in gameweek two, but it also shocked Man City in September. Farke became the first manager to beat the champions in the league since, oh that’s right, Rafa Benitez back in January. Breakout stars Todd Cantwell and the irrepressible Teemu Pukki are impressive and thriving.
Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United has won plaudits this season, not least for the fearlessness demonstrated in their long-awaited return to the top flight, but for sticking to the tried-and-tested progressive approach that served them so well in the second tier. They’ve also brought ‘overlapping centre backs’ into the common Premier League glossary.
Another progressive manager, who cut his teeth abroad, is Brighton’s new manager Graham Potter. He, like Dean Smith at Aston Villa, has tried to put more focus on attacking play and aim to take the game to their opponents. We saw this in dispatches in the first half, with their overlapping fullbacks constantly finding themselves in Newcastle’s penalty area.
Although Brighton and Villa have yet to tear up trees with their assertive game-plans, they, along with Norwich and Sheffield United, are at least all unified by a clear notion of identity.
Which brings us to Newcastle United under Steve Bruce. This isn’t solely a situation of his own doing by any means, and a lot of the summer recruitment lay at neither his nor Benitez’s door. But Bruce’s inability to achieve even the tactical basics during the opening fixtures with a still fairly competent group of players is truly frightening.
This is a team which tends not to attack, and they certainly aren’t scoring at a rate that will keep them in the division. In fact, on current numbers, they need 20 attempts on goal for every goal scored.
This is also a team which is a far-cry from being the 7th most defensively stable team in the league, which it was under Rafa Benitez. That feat seems ever more miraculous with every game played under Bruce this season.
Formations have changed mid-game, and although this could be a positive and reactive approach to game management in the right context, the manner of these changes have confused everyone, not least the players themselves.
Against Leicester yet another formation was tested, a 4-4-1-1, and to lose the fifth defender against the free-flowing attacking style of the league’s 3rd place club seemed like tactical suicide. And it was. It would’ve been even without Isaac Hayden’s mindless sending off.
Bruce apologists may point to the terrible run of form Rafa Benitez endured at the start of last season, and this fact has often felt like a shield to protect a similarly terrible run of form. The big difference, however, is that when Rafa had Salomon Rondon back and fit, the strategy was evident.
The other huge 12-storey caveat here is that of course, Benitez guided Newcastle to 13th place come May. Bruce doesn’t seem capable of this even if he had an extra ten games on the rest of the league.
Of course, Mike Ashley is the true poison here and things won’t ever feel ‘positive’ or ‘heartening’ until he moves on. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand a manager who understands the extent to which top flight football has evolved.
Bruce might have played five at the back before it was cool, but that’s simply not enough. The team needs a defined game plan and players need to be played in their optimal positions. If they believe in the system and their coaching, then they will exude confidence and composure on the pitch.
I don’t think the players believe in the system, because quite simply there is no defined system. At a time when the supporters need some semblance of hope, even a short-term vision they can buy into during these dark times, they are served confused and desperate direction from the dugouts.
Many fans have also been hoodwinked by the recruitment strategy too.
If Bruce is the best we can get, what’s the point in sacking him?
Except do you really believe this club went out of its way this summer, showing ambition to lure the best talent from the continent? Of course it didn’t.
Even under the Ashley regime, the St James’ Park post is an incredibly appealing Premier League job for progressive coaches with character, ambition, and a tactical footprint they want to impose on the English game. And guess what? Maybe they’re as nice as Steve Bruce is, too.
This club needs results, quickly, regardless of who is in charge. But that means a squad that knows what they’re supposed to be working towards, and a fan-base that understands the wider objective, even if the team loses.
As it stands, Newcastle United is anonymous and it desperately needs its identity back.