The inside story of the tactical rethink at Newcastle United
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Right?
There wasn’t much wrong with Newcastle United in the second half of last season.
The team, under Rafa Benitez, had overcome a challenging start to the campaign – and, crucially, was consistently getting results.
Benitez was using a 3-4-2-1 formation, though it was a five-man defence out of possession. And it worked.
Salomon Rondon, last season’s No9, was adept at holding the ball up and bringing others into play, and the pace of Miguel Almiron had helped carry the team up the field following his January arrival.
Ayoze Perez pressed high up the pitch and was in good goalscoring form. Rondon and Perez scored 23 Premier League goals between them. Rondon, Aliron and Perez were a handful for any team.
At the back, the defence, led by Jamaal Lascelles, was organised and disciplined. They knew their jobs – it was second nature after years of repetitive work on the training pitches at the club’s Benton HQ.
The team also had character, as shown in the comeback against Manchester City, who went on to win the Premier League.
That’s not to say the football was boring. The team, in Benitez’s last game, blew away Fulham 4-0 at Craven Cottage.
Steve Bruce watched the club’s fortunes with interest last season. While he admired what Benitez was doing at his boyhood club, he had never set up any of his teams to defend and play on the counter-attack. It was an alien concept to a manager who has always wanted his teams to get on the front foot.
Benitez, of course, defended his tactics by explaining that he didn’t have the players to play a different way. He simply had to get results – and this was the way to do it.
The Fulham game, which secured a 13th-placed finish, was to prove his last as Newcastle manager.
Then came Bruce, assisted by coaches Steve Agnew and Stephen Clemence, who had been with him at his previous clubs.
Bruce – who inherited a committed a close-knit group of players – tried to change the style of play on day one. He wanted to bring a more expansive brand of football to St James’s Park. He wanted to get into teams more, but the changes Bruce tried to make just haven’t worked.
First, there was the shambolic 3-1 defeat to Norwich City at Carrow Road. More damaging was last weekend’s 5-0 loss to Leicester City at the King Power Stadium. The performance unravelled following Isaac Hayden’s first-half dismissal.
Where was the resilience? Where was the discipline? And what has happened to Almiron?
“Look, it was an extremely difficult afternoon for us, because when you are down to 10 men, the one thing you need to do is go 10, 15, 20 minutes into the second half to give yourself a chance,” said Bruce, whose side take on Manchester United, his former club, at St James’s Park tomorrow.
“We've given a bad goal away, a mistake and an own goal. Now, we're 3-0 down after 55 minutes and it turns into one of those horrible afternoons. I've got no gripe with you there at all. However, when you look at the physical stats of it, we're not doing enough.
“Maybe we didn't show enough resilience, I agree. That is the biggest worry I had last week. There was an acceptance we got beat. Any team that I've managed, that's the one thing I hope they are going to do – pull their sleeves up and have a go. Last week was hopefully a one-off.”
Bruce had gone with a 4-4-2 formation against Leicester. However, the 58-year-old now recognises that he doesn’t have the legs in central midfield to play that system.
And Bruce, maybe reluctantly, will adopt a defensive, counter-attacking system. They played that way against Tottenham Hotspur in late August – and won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Joelinton.
The team, in total, has only scored four league goals, and the move to a more attacking system has actually seen the players spend more time on the back foot.
“Looking at the way the team is happiest, you’d say we’ll play with five at the back, with two No10s, and we’ll sit deep and play on the counter-attack, which is exactly what we did when we played against Tottenham,” said Bruce.
That said, Bruce still wants to evolve the team. The style of play, clearly, is still a frustration to Bruce, though he is pragmatic.
“I know you're not afforded a lot of time these days,” said Bruce. “It's been weeks. I still haven't seen some of them play just yet. Now, I'm not looking for excuses, because last week, I was as bad as anybody else standing there and witnessing it.
“However, they are what they are, and we’ve got to try to get the best out of them. That’s the big thing now for the weekend.”
Bruce’s tactics at the King Power Stadium had been questioned by his players.
“The coach decided to play four at the back and we needed to adapt," said goalkeeper Martin Dubravka. "We were trying to do our best, but I have to say it didn't work.”
It wasn’t working, and Bruce recognised that. And he will bide his time before making another change, but will he get enough time?