It’s a bloody good question. For those who don’t know, that is precisely (according to Craig Hope of The Daily Mail) what Steve Bruce exclaimed after Jetro Willems trotted onto the St James’ Park turf and took up his position in the centre of midfield. It’s a position he’s played before (even if only on a handful of occasions for Eintracht Frankfurt) so he was well within his rights to think that was exactly where his manager wanted him to play when he replaced Jonjo Shelvey in the season opener against Arsenal. Only, Steve Bruce didn’t want him to play there. He wanted him to slot into the left wing back role and for Matt Ritchie to move inside and play central midfield (a position that, as far as I know, he has never played). That in itself is a tactical move up for debate, but that isn’t (entirely) the point of this article. Willems went onto the pitch without being told, or at least being told clearly, which position the manager wished him to play. It might not have been the reason we lost the game (Willems was at left wing back when making the mistake which led to the winning goal, albeit “too high” according to Bruce), but it was symptomatic of what went wrong on Sunday. Throughout the second half, it was hard to work out who was supposed to be playing where, so I imagine Steve Bruce wasn’t the only one asking the question posed in the title. Jetro Willems, Matt Ritchie, Isaac Hayden and Miguel Almiron could all be seen as the deepest lying midfielder at various points in the final 35 minutes. Clarity was needed. And tactical clarity is precisely the point of this article.
The buck stops with Steve Bruce after clumsy introduction of Jetro Willems (who did not know where he was playing) disrupts NUFC rhythm before ragged final half hour https://t.co/vs1zHUuJ4q
— Craig Hope (@CraigHope_DM) August 11, 2019
“Steve wants the team to play with intensity and on the front foot and I think that has been evident in our recent pre-season games”. The words of Lee Charnley published in The Chronicle on Sunday morning. Ah, “front foot football”. Hello darkness, my old friend. You might remember those very words spewing from the mouth of Alan Pardew at various times in recent years. “Alan Pardew wants his young side to play a ‘fast brand of front-foot football’” – The Telegraph, March 2012. “Front-foot, elaborate and gung-ho – Crystal Palace’s new style” – The Sun, December 2016. “New boss Alan Pardew says West Brom ‘will play on the front foot’, even if it means them getting a ‘bloody nose’” – BBC Sport, November 2017. Three different clubs, the same brand of “front-foot football”, the mother of all bloody noses for West Brom, and the same result for the manager: disliked/hated/despised (delete as appropriate according to your own level of hatred) by the majority of fans. It’s all well and good saying your team plays front-foot football but the proof, as they say, is in the Pardew. Sorry, pudding. But let’s forget Pardew (forever if possible), and concentrate on Bruce again. Lee Charnley claims a more intense and attacking style of play has been evident in pre-season. Firstly, 5 pre-season games don’t mean much. Secondly, if we are going to analyse pre-season games, we played 5 and scored 7 goals against teams of varying quality (the worst being Preston and Hibernian, the best being Wolves). It’s a small sample but let’s compare it with, say, the last 5 games of the Rafa Benitez era. 5 games and 11 goals scored, also against teams of varying quality (hello Fulham and Liverpool). Whilst firm conclusions can’t be made from a sample of 5 games, it does suggest that the football played under Rafa Benitez, certainly in the latter stages of last season, was different to how it’s often portrayed in the media and how Lee Charnley suggested.
🎙 Free Podcast: NUFC lose their PL opener to Arsenal – with special guest Luke Edwards.
— True Faith NUFC (@tfNUFC) August 14, 2019
Rafa Benitez is accused of being a defensive-minded and somewhat negative coach. It could instead be argued that he’s pragmatic and cares about one thing in football, which also happens to be the most important thing, the result. His teams are tactically disciplined, incredibly well drilled defensively and they do play cautiously at times. At Liverpool he mostly played 4-2-3-1 / 4-5-1 and liked to play Dirk Kuyt as his right-sided attacking midfielder because he worked his backside off for the team. Liverpool beat Chelsea 1-0 over two cagey legs in the Champions League semi-final in 2005. They set up defensively to not concede in the first leg at Stamford Bridge, coming away with a 0-0 draw. In the second leg, they scored inside 4 minutes and spent the remaining 86 successfully defending their lead. It wasn’t great to watch, but they won the Champions League. In our 2015/16 Championship season, we approached away games against Brighton and Huddersfield in a similar way. Again, the football wasn’t great (though I’ve certainly seen worse). We won both away games against our promotion rivals and, ultimately, the league by a single point. Small margins, fine details, results. Rafa Benitez exemplified.
In the second half of last season Benitez moved away from his usual 4-2-3-1 and set the side up in a 3-4-2-1 formation. Without the ball the system essentially became a 5-4-1 with the wingbacks tucked in fairly close to the 3 centre backs, narrowing the spaces between them. The 2 attacking midfielders (usually Ayoze Perez and Miguel Almiron) would take up wide midfield positions to defend and Salomon Rondon would work diligently to defend from the front. It was tough to break down, even for the best sides. As it stands, our victory in January is still the last time a Premier League side has taken any points from Man City in 2019. It was a flexible system and a good fit for the attributes of most of the players in the squad. 3-4-2-1 might be seen as a negative system when looking purely at the defensive numbers, but in possession it was a different beast entirely. Fabian Schar and Florian Lejeune are very comfortable on the ball and initiated attacks either by bringing the ball out of defence or by playing crossfield passes to the wing-backs, who would push high up the pitch to provide attacking width. The attacking midfielders (Perez and Almiron) moved inside to play as inside forwards and essentially provided a front 3, spearheaded by Rondon. Perez and Almiron found space between the lines and posed real tactical problems; opposition full backs were often occupied by the wing backs, and opposition centre backs and defensive midfielders had the conundrum of who would pick up Perez and Almiron. The central midfielders were more reserved, ready to mop up loose balls and to provide cover for the advanced wing backs if needed, but they were also given licence to pop up on the edge of the box (see Longstaff hitting the post at home to Huddersfield) or break forward if the opportunity presented itself (see Hayden scoring away against Wolves and Longstaff at home against Burnley). In many ways it was a similar system to the 3-4-3 used by Antonio Conte in Chelsea’s title winning 2016/17 season. It allowed the side to play 3 out and out attacking players, supported by the wing backs, and they proved more than able to shoulder the creative responsibility of the team.
Since Steve Bruce has taken the reins, he’s deployed a 3-5-2 formation. On the face of it, 3-4-2-1 and 3-5-2 sound pretty similar, but in practice they’ve proved to be very different. 3-5-2 does have its advantages over 3-4-2-1. You have an extra body in central midfield to defend when out of possession, thereby reducing the defensive burden on the attacking players. It should also allow a higher press (even though there wasn’t too much evidence of that against Arsenal), as 2 forwards are better able to press opposition defenders and cut off passing angles into midfield. And defensively on Sunday, for the most part, we were ok (I’ll put the goal down to individual errors, rather than a result of any change in system). The problems came with the lack of ideas in possession and the lack of support for Almiron and Joelinton. With the 3-5-2, we were essentially playing without one of the attacking players provided by the 3-4-2-1. Almiron played just off and supported Joelinton, but it placed the onus on one of the CMs to provide some of the attacking spark. Hayden and Longstaff tried, with Shelvey seemingly instructed to sit deeper, but it simply didn’t work. Almiron and Joelinton were too often isolated with help arriving too late from the aforementioned central midfielders, who aren’t best suited to playing a box-to-box role effectively. To do so requires 2 things – mobility to get up and support in the first place and technical ability to affect the game when you do. Hayden has one attribute, Longstaff has the other, but neither have both. That’s where the lack of cohesion becomes apparent. Players playing where they aren’t entirely comfortable in roles that don’t suit their skill set. Front-foot football sounds great. Playing 2 up front sounds positive. But without the structure and players to perform those roles adequately, front-foot football quickly becomes frustrating, long-ball-forward-to-isolated-front-men football.
The caveat to all this, of course, is that Steve Bruce has only been in charge for 4 weeks. It takes time for a new manager’s ideas and system to be implemented. The caveat to that is, nothing was broken in the first place. We had the 7th best defensive record in the league last season, suggesting an extra body in a 3 man central midfield isn’t really needed. The football we played in the closing months of last season was probably the best and most prolific we’d played under Benitez; 2-1 v Man City, 2-0 v Burnley, 2-0 v Huddersfield, 3-2 v Everton, 0-1 away to Leicester, 3-1 v Southampton, 2-3 v Liverpool (one of only 3 teams last season to have more shots on target than Liverpool, and by the biggest margin), 0-4 away to Fulham. 14 goals scored in the final 7 home games of the season. It sounds an awful lot like how you might expect front-foot football to sound.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with a new manager having his own system and trying to implement it. What jarred with me was the implication from Lee Charnley that Benitez played negatively, and that under Bruce we could look forward to a more attacking style. I’m not sure about you, but if what we saw on Sunday was an attacking side, give me a functional one any day of the week. Implying that Rafa Benitez played in a negative way is, in my opinion, plainly wrong anyway. If the definition of front-foot football is to get as many players as possible forward in a coherent, balanced manner, then I’d argue that’s exactly how Benitez had us playing. Last season he initially ground out results, using the limited resources at his disposal, until we had enough points on the board to look like we’d survive, and then actually played some really good attacking football. When he was allowed to spend some money in January, he spent it on an attacker who expedited the improvement in our offensive play. Being an attacking side and a coherent side aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, in order to be successful, one is completely dependent on the other.
There is no doubt that Bruce needs time and, without any current alternative, he will be given it. But time isn’t something Premier League teams and managers have a lot of. We play Norwich away on Saturday, one of the other favourites to occupy the relegation spots this season. If there is another stuttering performance from players in roles they aren’t comfortable with and a system that doesn’t provide attacking balance at Carrow Road, it will likely be another precious 3 points down the drain. The injury sustained by Shelvey against Arsenal actually presents an opportunity for Bruce to revert back to the 3-4-2-1 shape that worked so well last season. Instead of replacing Shelvey with a central midfielder (or Matt Ritchie…), Allan Saint-Maximin could be brought in to play as part of an attacking triumvirate with Almiron and Joelinton. One of the supposed question marks over Saint-Maximin is his defensive discipline, so whether he has the desire to perform the necessary defensive work to make that system function, and whether Bruce is the man to instil that in him, is another matter. If not, the signing of square pegs to play in round holes is another.
Sunday provided a stark reminder (if any were needed) of what we lost when Benitez left, and the difference a top class coach can make to an average squad. It’s hard to imagine Benitez allowing the midfield shape to become so distorted, never mind making the fundamental errors Bruce did, namely leaving a central midfielder (Ki Sung-Yeung) out of the match day squad to accommodate 4 defenders on the bench and allowing 2 players to enter the field without knowing where they were supposed to play (Saint-Maximin also had to be told to change position after initially moving to the left wing). The football and system played under Benitez was cohesive, and players had clarity in their roles. How to sum up what we saw in the second half of Bruce’s first game in charge? Chaotic and deeply concerning.