Bruce won’t take Newcastle up or down, so what’s the point?

Matt Stead
steve bruce newcastle

Despite channeling his inner-Fergie with an emboldened rant about fixture congestion five minutes later, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had initially walked out of the Goodison Park dugout with a big grin slapped across his face.

It wasn’t a smug expression. That particular chore fell to a few Manchester United correspondents whose brazen remarks could not out them as more blatantly Red-blooded and pro-Ole if they had ‘Pride of 1999’ tattooed on their forehead. But Solskjaer’s smile was filled with a sense that such a victory provided him a safety net for the time-being.

While Man United fans will certainly – and rightly – join in with their boss and rejoice at such a convincing win against Everton, there is the nagging idea that the three points has only postponed the inevitable.

This conundrum isn’t exclusive to them, however. And it’s even more difficult when your club is actually achieving what most would see as relative success. While Man United are in the more obviously destitute predicament of 13th place, Newcastle United sit in a respectable 11th despite their 2-0 loss to Southampton on Friday.

Those on the outside will have no idea why, but this hapless defeat has seen some Newcastle fans calling for Steve Bruce’s sacking, in part because of the contrast between their manager and Southampton’s.

Ralph Hasenhüttl and Bruce went into the game presiding over teams of similar quality: good enough to avoid a relegation scrap but perhaps not yet blessed with the fortitude needed to knock on the door of a Europa League place. Last season, the two coaches endured some heavy defeats. Southampton’s 9-0 loss to Leicester City has warranted its own Wikipedia page now, while Bruce’s team conceded at least four goals on five separate occasions in the league. The two managers are also in their 50s and stand six feet or taller. But that’s where their similarities end.

In a game where his side displayed as much fight as an Amish panda brandishing a white flag, the Geordie manager was simply outplayed by a man who has been at his club for six months longer but has vastly less experience in the league overall.

Now, while Hasenhüttl has Southampton top of the table for the first time in 32 years, Bruce finds his team mid-table with a fanbase still as disgruntled as ever and yet to be convinced by what’s been ironically named Bruce Ball.

OK, here we go, we hear you say: another woke football writer sipping a skinny latte in tight jeans and a Latin American football top, running his mouth about a British ‘dinosaur’ while fawning over some Austrian high-press ultra-attacking flavour of the month. If Bruce was born ‘Brucinho’, maybe the article would be angled the other way, right?

Not quite.

Before the brigade come in with drawn swords and sharpened pitchforks, bleating on that this is propelling the same anti-British manager rhetoric used by the media and across football clubs – an idea mentioned strangely by Frank Lampard, who earned the best job at a top-four club after doing an adequate single year in the Championship – it would be fair to state Bruce is actually doing better than most think.

Newcastle are again back in the running of a domestic cup competition, in the quarter-finals of the League Cup after reaching the same stage of the FA Cup last season. They have also only lost three of their 11 games so far.

Yet here they are again. The fans, on social media, on Sky Sports, in their droves, rising up, complaining, whining and bellyaching, all over a manager who’s brought them nothing but solid results this campaign and last.

That’s the perception of the Newcastle supporters at present.

But in the fans’ desperation to condemn Bruce as a worse manager than he is, they have inadvertently enabled him to defy those expectations and come out looking even better. This in turn allows for bemusing, off-the-mark claims like the one Mark Lawrenson made on Saturday night, suggesting Newcastle fans will only be happy once they won the Champions League.

Once again, the truth is more nuanced. Bruce hasn’t been a disaster, like some fans may attest, but stats, as well as performances, show that calamity is on the horizon and may manifest in results soon enough.

In January 2020, Newcastle were last on expected goals, last in corner kicks, 19th in passes into the opponent’s third, 19th in pass-completion percentage, and last in possession (33.4% – the worst since records began in 2003).

This league campaign, they have faced the most shots, made the most saves and have the highest save percentage, while their average expected goals per game this time around is 1.12.

Meanwhile, across his three transfer windows, Bruce has spent £103.28m. This was to improve upon a side that finished 13th in the table under Rafael Benitez, conceding 48 goals and scoring 42. Yet the following season, they finished 13th again, this time letting in a further ten goals and scoring four less.

Even away from numbers and tables, the club at least offered a semblance of identity under Bruce’s predecessor, in that they would be dogged and hard to break down. But that’s gone now. Only Bruce Ball – however one defines that – reigns.

Indeed, you can see how Newcastle fans are struggling to legitimise their concerns to those who merely glance at their recent results or scan the table. But the fact is their wins and last-gasp draws have been masked by the quality of their attacking players and the relatively satisfactory ability of their manager, who offers not much more than a functional element to the way they’re set up.

Go play Newcastle without a plan and you’ll likely lose; turn up the heat a tad with an adequate tactic and some vigour, you’ll be sure to nab some points against them.

The troubles Bruce is having at Newcastle are indicative of his whole managerial career. While he’s been polite and mannered throughout – even competent at times, overseeing the promotions of four Championship clubs – he has constantly been stubborn in the face of innovation and style. One character assassination stated:  ‘[He has an] apparent inability to tweak formations or tactics during matches. Whenever a rival manager re-configured his system mid-game, Bruce invariably failed to come up with a countermeasure.’

It’s a quote which was as relevant this weekend as it was when published ten years ago, a period during which Bruce responded to a question asking whether he’d adopt the Christmas tree formation with: “I’m not really into tactics.”

The frustration with Bruce isn’t that he’s been absolutely inept, it’s that he does not have the capability to move the club forward. His achievements have been to guide the team with the 12th most expensive squad to 13th in the table – and a Premier League team to the quarter-finals of two competitions.

When clubs have the likes of Hasenhüttl coming to the Premier League with their own clear identity and ambition, it’s hard for rivals supporters not to sit red-faced and pissed off when they’re trailing 1-0 with ten minutes to go, on the backfoot against a well-drilled side.

Part of the passion of sport is having the belief that something could – however unlikely – happen. When such possibilities do not present themselves, fans are stuck in footballing purgatory, a place where they’re merely harnessed safely from danger without offering any real threat themselves. And with an owner such as Newcastle’s, there’s not even a spectre of light in the distance, only more capricious performances that are galvanised, at times, through squad pedigree and managerial competency of the smallest amount.

They need more than that: risks must be taken to make way for something new, a refreshing, revolutionary act that at least could be an improvement on what wasn’t even really working in the same competition ten years ago.

Jacque Talbot is on Twitter