On a truncated Premier League weekend there was still plenty to praise (mostly Brighton) and plenty to bemoan (mostly Steve Bruce)…
Brighton, the opposite of Newcastle
If you’ll forgive me for going all Marks & Spencer, this wasn’t just a 3-0 win. It was emphatic proof that Brighton and Newcastle United are two opposites, two extremes on the football spectrum that provoke two entirely opposing emotional reactions from the neutral.
Brighton are the provincial club without the rich history of winning trophies that currently have the best first XI and deepest squad in their history and are on their longest top-flight run too. Newcastle are not so much a sleeping giant as one knocked to the floor by a series of self-administered punches to the face. They have been in worse slumps than this, not least in the late 1970s and early 1980s when they spent six straight seasons in the second tier, but it is hard to imagine a time when this club has so consistently infuriated its own supporters.
Brighton have one of the most progressive, forward-thinking managers in the Premier League, whose route to the top came via Ostersund and Swansea and who is in his first top-flight managerial role. Newcastle have Steve Bruce, now on his fifth Premier League club and who is accused by supporters of resorting to risk-averse football which lacks tactical courage and innovation.
Brighton have an owner who is prepared to spend freely on augmenting the playing staff but who is constantly looking to tomorrow, buying young with the aim of selling high and reinvesting in pursuit of a sustainable future. Newcastle spend money on sticking plasters required by self-imposed crises, reacting to situations rather than proactively designing their own future.
Brighton have won the two games between the two clubs this season, scoring six times and having 12 shots on target. Newcastle have lost the two games between the two clubs this season, failing to score and mustering a single shot on target.
Brighton and Newcastle may occupy consecutive places in the Premier League table, but that is where the similarities end. I cannot think of many more exciting clubs in the country to support right now than Brighton, and that includes their frustrating habits this season; jeopardy can be fun. I can’t think of many less exciting clubs to support than Newcastle. Brighton is a club where hope is being created; Newcastle is where hope goes to curl up and die.
I held back from the effusive praise last week; Brighton can trick you into believing that their signs of progress are irrevocable only to make you look silly a week later. Perhaps that point still stands (they’re not safe yet), but this was victory that demands commendation. The post-match narrative was all focused on Newcastle (let’s face it, more on that soon), but Brighton finally produced their best performance in months just when it mattered most. That suggests a resolve that we doubted they possessed.
And it was a victory delivered by Potter’s tactics. He picked Danny Welbeck and Neal Maupay as a front two but they only really acted like it when pressing out of possession. When Brighton won the ball (or were handed it back), Welbeck and Maupay drifted wide to create a front three with Leandro Trossard pushing forward to become the central striker and Newcastle struggled to track Trossard’s runs.
The other trick was to select two unnatural wing-backs in Jakub Moder and Pascal Gross. Against a team happy to sacrifice possession so deliberately and only ever counter-attacking in ones and twos, that pair had licence to push forward at will with three central defenders and the magnificent Yves Bissouma covering.
But what was so interesting about Moder and Gross as how they attacked. With Welbeck and Maupay offering the width, they made underlapping runs rather than overlapping the midfielders. Again, Newcastle didn’t know how to cope. Moder and Gross accounted for almost a third of Brighton’s touches in the opposition box and over a third of their shots.
Potter has not had things easy this season, consistently frustrated by Brighton’s profligacy in front of goal. But not only have Brighton’s underlying numbers suggested that they would eventually get their reward, they pass the eye test too. The only worry was that results would not rise to match performances until it was too late. The last two games suggest improvement has come in the nick of time.
All power to Potter, not just for Saturday’s innovation but for his approach to the job as a whole. At Ostersund and Swansea he proved himself an excellent coach. At Brighton, he’s done enough to suggest that they are one or two pieces away from establishing themselves as a top-half club and that Potter is already a top-half manager.
I am in no way confident that Sunday evening is the start of a great shift in Mourinho’s narrative arc at Tottenham. I think we have gone too far down the road of poison and blame being spread across the squad, and Thursday’s Europa League exit to Dinamo Zagreb caused far more damage than could ever be rescued at Villa Park.
But they did win, Mourinho’s ‘send a message’ team did get the job done, Carlos Vinicius and Lucas Moura worked really well around Harry Kane and, somehow, Tottenham are three points off the top four with nine games left. Mourinho must spend the international break building bridges.
West Ham vs Arsenal
I know I should probably have some very serious opinions about Jekyll and Hyde Arsenal, Tottenham learning that they probably should have attacked them in the north London derby, David Moyes paying the price for sitting on a lead when they were in embarrassing ascendancy and West Ham becoming the first team in four years to score two own goals in the same Premier League match, but can I just say that this was a bloody marvellous match to watch. After the last few weeks/months of relentless Premier League football that has made everything feel like a slog, we all deserved some nonsensical chaos.
At the end of January, Lingard has clicked over to a full year without a Premier League start, barely even making Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s second XI at Manchester United. Less than three months later, he has moved out on loan, scored five league goals, been one of the best players in the country and earned a recall to the England squad. Well played, young man.
No England call-up yet, but if he keeps scoring goals then he does have a slight chance of making Gareth Southgate’s pre-tournament squad before the dreaded cull. Even if he doesn’t, so what? Bamford had scored one Premier League goal at five different clubs before this season; now he’s the second highest English goalscorer in the division.
More than that, he’s become a more complete striker this season despite the constant pressure to lead Leeds’ line. More impressive than Bamford’s goalscoring are his assist statistics: Forty percent of his career league assists have come this season.
Probably the best attacking signing of last summer in the Premier League. And, more importantly, a bundle of fun to watch.
He’s just a sensational holding midfielder by the age of 24, who probably deserves Champions League football.
Mikel, sign him up. Mikel, Mikel, sign him up.
In 2011, Steve Bruce gave an interview with the League Managers Association in which he was asked for his managerial philosophy.
“I concentrate on the area where I have the most responsibility, the training ground. I want everybody to come into work and enjoy what they’re doing; if you create that environment then you get the best out of people.”
That has remained Bruce’s mantra. He has never professed to be a tactical wizard, and that should not be interpreted as a slur. His best teams have been committed, workmanlike and contained a team spirit that he forges.
But that only makes Saturday night (and this season as a whole) more damning. For a man who prides his work on the training ground, this is the third year in a row in which he has admitted to being surprised by Brighton’s tactics and unable to cope with them.
Newcastle have offered some fight in recent weeks. That is the least we should expect from any team haunted by the threat of impending relegation (and does not excuse some of the risk-averse football), but the win over Southampton with nine men and gutsy equaliser against Aston Villa suggested a determination remained amongst his players to fight for their manager. That fight evaporated on Saturday. Newcastle were outclassed, but they barely offered the fight that can often overcome such a gap. It was, to be frank, exactly the type of performance that gets a manager sacked.
Bruce has not had it easy in recent weeks. The injuries to Miguel Almiron, Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin have decimated his attacking options. But let’s not pretend that it destroyed the fluidity of a team playing at its peak. All season Newcastle’s numbers have suggested that they were lucky not to be in deep trouble. They rank in the bottom three on a per-game basis for touches in the opposition box and shots faced, suggesting issues at both ends of the pitch.
And it’s the lack of surprise at this slump from within the club’s support that is most incriminating, not least because it rails against Bruce’s own optimism. Newcastle were 6/1 to beat Brighton on Saturday and no Newcastle supporter would have taken those odds with any confidence. And yet on Friday Bruce was still insisting that the bad run was over and that Newcastle we’re doing OK. They have won two of their last 20 matches in all competitions.
The only measure by which that is OK or anything close to it is by comparing their record with West Brom and Sheffield United. But that fails to land because Bruce himself suggested at the start of the season that Newcastle should be aiming for the top half. He’s falling short of his own expectations, let alone anyone else’s.
It’s now clear that Bruce has lost the support of the fans, most local journalists and (if Saturday night is anything to go by) perhaps the players too. As of Sunday, the only notable dissenter to that opinion was Mike Ashley himself, who reportedly has made it clear that Bruce’s job is safe.
Newcastle United may not go down. But that’s not the point. They are a shell of a club under Ashley – that much we knew already – but the (difficult) role of the manager in those circumstances is to switch focus away from that misery. That’s ultimately what Rafael Benitez managed. Amid all the arguments over his style of play and whether he was ever likely to stay under Ashley’s premiership, Newcastle supporters loved Benitez because he insisted that they could dream bigger than this malaise, to the extent that he became the personification of that dream.
And, sadly, that is exactly what Bruce has failed to do. Rather than deflecting attention away from the uncertainties that tether this club to the ground, Bruce has highlighted that mess. Rather than provide escapism, he has reinforced the grim reality. It would be best for him and them if the relationship ended here.
Newcastle United supporters
I’m not quite sure why it is, but Newcastle supporters seem to be a particular target for people telling them to know their place. It happens at other clubs, obviously; Brighton themselves suffered the “Be careful what you wish for” reaction after replacing Chris Hughton with Potter. But Newcastle supporters seem to continually be accused of entitlement.
You do wonder who these people have actually spoken to. Of course Newcastle supporters might dream of a top-six finish or a domestic cup final – who doesn’t? But that misses the point. Newcastle fans don’t want the world and they certainly don’t expect it.
They do want a club that points itself in the right direction and that at least attempts to realise its own potential. They want a club that doesn’t constantly lurch from one self-imposed crisis to another so often that everyone is left feeling a little seasick. And they do want a club where the various strands within it – players, supporters, manager, owner – are all on the same page.
If all that does now seem like an unrealistic, fanciful dream, that’s only because this club has been starved of those things for so long that everyone has forgotten what it looks like. In the six seasons before Mike Ashley bought the club, Newcastle finished in the top seven of the Premier League four times. They got to the second group stage of the Champions League once, beating Juventus and eventually being eliminated by Barcelona and Inter. They got to the UEFA Cup semi-finals and quarter-finals in consecutive years.
That isn’t ancient history; it’s the platform from which Ashley pledged to build but miserably failed. Asking for a little more than their current lament doesn’t make them entitled; if it is too much to ask for, we might as well all give up.
Fulham have received plenty of praise of late for the manner in which they have turned their season around. To some extent, I understand why (and have often praised them in this column). But Scott Parker’s team have only won three league games since November and one more than Sheffield United all season.
Fulham were 18th after their second game of the season, their ninth game of the season, their 20th game of the season and their 30th game of the season. They have now been 18th for three months without moving a position. When that run started, they were one point from safety having played a game more than the team directly above them. Now they’re two points from safety, having played a game more than the team directly above them.
That’s not to say that there hasn’t been clear improvement, but Fulham have picked up a nasty Brighton-esque habit of performing well for extended periods of matches without producing complete performances often enough and being punished for their lapses. The victory at Anfield gave them hope, but it has been sandwiched by matches against Burnley, Crystal Palace, Leeds and an out-of-form Tottenham that returned two points and two goals. They missed the perfect chance to pile more pressure upon Newcastle.
Aston Villa without Jack Grealish
This exact phrase featured in the Winners list a few weeks ago when Aston Villa won at Elland Road without Grealish. Since then they have scored one goal in four games against Sheffield United, Wolves, Newcastle United and Tottenham. And it was an own goal.
I really thought that this might be the perfect season for Loftus-Cheek to enjoy his breakout season – loan move, regular football, still in London, Premier League – but it really hasn’t happened. He’s scored one league goal, is yet to assist one and has created 15 chances in 1,665 league minutes. He’s also older than Dele Alli, which feels downright weird.