F365’s early loser: Steve Bruce amid a sorry Newcastle surrender

Date published: Sunday 29th September 2019 7:16

Newcastle’s performance in the 5-0 humping at the hands of Leicester was the kind of hopeless, hapless display that so often turns the tide against a manager. Steve Bruce may have been doggy-paddling against it since he was chucked in on Tyneside, but this defeat will give him a sinking feeling that he will struggle to shake.

The Magpies are a mess and though Bruce isn’t responsible for even half of it, the inevitability is that he will be made to pay for it. Mike Ashley certainly won’t and the owner’s thriftiness coupled with his stated desire to sell the club insulates many of the players too. When change comes at St James’ Park, whether it is next week or next summer – either way it’s probably too late – it will almost certainly occur in the dug-out before the board room or the dressing room.

Many, including a swathe of the supporters, will suggest that Bruce was in over his head from the moment he dipped his toe in this summer. But the burden of blame for this performance should not fall upon the manager. This one is on the players.

Newcastle’s mission at the King Power was clear and the success of Bruce’s plan when his players carried out their instructions to the letter against Tottenham last month offered the travelling supporters hope that the Magpies could pull it off again, especially with Leicester shorn of their most creative player. When it was actioned at Anfield a fortnight ago, only a couple of individual errors and the brilliance of Roberto Firmino foiled the plot. But at Leicester, not a single player stuck to the blueprint.

It is not as though Bruce’s instructions are complicated – indeed, for some, they are not sophisticated enough. But this defeat demonstrates why the manager has to keep it simple.

Every manager upon taking over at a club, especially one as crisis-laden as Newcastle, will first look to solidify the foundations before building up the pitch. Rafael Benitez, the darling of the Toon Army, took exactly that approach and for three years he was able to mend the defence and barely make do in attack.

Bruce inherited three-quarters of a back-four and little else besides, so a defensive approach on the road is easy to fathom. But when that rearguard fails, as it did so spectacularly at the King Power, Bruce can only take cover while Newcastle cave in around him.

Leicester will carve through many better teams than Newcastle this season but the ease with which they were able to get a sight of Martin Dubravka’s goal will infuriate Bruce. So often, one pass or one run was all it took while the back four dropped off and the midfield showed the resilience of a soggy copy of the Chronicle.

That was certainly the case when Leicester scored their opener. After a bright start, one perhaps born of the frustration of relinquishing the initiative to Brighton at home last week, Newcastle wilted in the face of a simple wall pass between Ricardo Pereira and Ayoze Perez. A give-and-go that originated in the Leicester half saw Pereira lead a four-on-three charge, but the Foxes right-back needed no back-up while Fabian Schar and Jamaal Lascelles were taken too willingly for a walk by Jamie Vardy.

Newcastle’s reluctance to engage Leicester subsided for a brief moment before the break, when Isaac Hayden thundered into Denis Praet after another clumsy Toon giveaway in the hosts’ half. Hayden’s argument that his studs-up, head-on challenge won him the ball was irrelevant, with Praet lucky to avoid serious injury.

But Bruce’s men swiftly returned to submissive mode and appeared reluctant to lay a finger on the Foxes once down to 10 men. Indeed, Hayden’s replacement in midfield Ki Sung-yeung seemed averse to going anywhere near Praet when the Leicester new boy made the most of his freedom to play a reverse pass into Harvey Barnes’ path. On to Vardy it went without a challenge, with the striker’s shot waved in at his near post by Dubravka.

Passive defending was a recurring theme in the other three goals which completed Leicester’s rout. Not since their return to the Premier League have we seen such a lack of willingness to dig in. Rather less surprisingly, after going behind, Newcastle offered nothing in reply to threaten Leicester’s cleanest of sheets.

In Joelinton’s case, that was almost literally the case – at least in terms of touches near Kasper Schmeichel’s goal. The Newcastle No.9 met the ball just once in the Foxes’ box before being hooked just after the hour for Andy Carroll. The £40million record signing will quite fairly point towards the woeful absence of service provided by Christian Atsu, Miguel Almiron and Yoshinori Muto, who at least has the excuse of being substituted when Hayden was dismissed. But if it wasn’t then for Muto, it would only have been a matter of time of the £10million forward with no assists in his Premier League career and only one goal which came against Manchester United when everyone was scoring against Manchester United a year ago.

Almiron’s defence will focus on being asked to play right-wing by Bruce, who may counter that the Paraguyan international has looked similarly out of place all the way across Newcastle’s forward line. Almiron and Joelinton also offer Ashley some mitigation, which he will seize upon like a failing retailer, since it was they who the owner spent club record fees on within six months of each other earlier this year. Between them, they have mustered one goal and five shots on target all season. Almiron has created only three chances in seven games having lost possession 102 times so far this term.

The attacking numbers make for grim reading across the board for Bruce. Newcastle have had fewer shots and created fewer chances in open play and overall, which is presumably a consequence of having less possession (33 per cent) than anyone other Premier League team.

Such dire attacking productivity can be compensated for by a solid defence, discipline and a determination not to be beaten even when victory is beyond them. Benitez proved that, but in the absence of all those required characteristics, Bruce’s Newcastle appear in perilous danger of being pulled under.

Ian Watson

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