'Bigger challenges are on the horizon' - A closer look at Steve Bruce's system change at Newcastle United

Steve Bruce changed his formation as Newcastle United drew 1-1 at Watford.

Tuesday, 28th September 2021, 12:30 pm

Here, we take a closer look at the tactical tweak:

Going from five to four at the back

For the first time since the 3-0 defeat at Brighton in April, Bruce started a Premier League match with a four-man defence in a 4-3-3/ 4-1-4-1 system.

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Newcastle United head coach Graeme Jones. (Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images)

Javier Manquillo and Matt Ritchie started as full-backs with Federico Fernandez – captain in Jamal Lascelles’ absence – and Ciaran Clark partnering in the middle.

In midfield, Isaac Hayden sat the deepest of the three with Joe Willock and Sean Longstaff tasked with getting further up the pitch.

Miguel Almiron started as a right-winger, Joelinton on the left. Allan Saint-Maximin continued as a central striker.

Longstaff’s license to push forward contributed to United’s opener as the Geordie midfielder unleashed a stunning strike into the top right corner.

Newcastle squandered several chances to win the game and were forced to settle for a point after Ismaila Sarr’s 73rd-minute equaliser.

Much better performance – but same result

Bruce’s side were much more solid defensively with Watford’s goal aided via some poor defending on a corner rather than open play.

Fernandez and Clark looked a lot more comfortable in a two while Manquillo did well on his third consecutive start since returning to the side.

The 5-3-2 formation, certainly in recent weeks, had a ‘square pegs in round holes’ feel to it but the system change at Vicarage Road felt and looked better.

Saint-Maximin and Ritchie are two who aren’t playing their ‘natural’ positions as such, but both are having an impact.

In a way, substitutions were more straightforward. Jacob Murphy – who should have won it late on – played in his favoured right-wing position.

Dwight Gayle, albeit on the field for eight minutes, was introduced as a striker with Saint-Maximin dropping in behind. Perhaps that is something to explore with Gayle’s current lack of game time raising huge questions as to why he was offered – and signed – a new three-year deal.

Bruce has continuously spoken about “getting the balance right”. He did at Vicarage Road but it’s worth noting it was against newly-promoted opposition, a team Newcastle really should be beating.

It was one of the better performances of Bruce’s tenure but wins are needed, and fast. Much bigger challenges are on the horizon – and that’s then this ‘new’ formation will be properly tested.

The thoughts of Steve Bruce

On the formation change, Bruce said: “I think the statistics, I will give you them. It is not new to us to play a back four.

"We changed after Brighton (last season) after that horror show. Then we went to a back three from then on, the final games of the season, we were arguably at our best. So we decided to stay with that.

“I think it is something that most clubs have - you've got to have the ability to change.

“Certainly, we have played well in the last couple with it (back four), so, look, we concentrate that on next week also.”

A four-man defence is here to stay for now ahead of Saturday’s hugely important clash at Wolves as Newcastle hope to avoid heading into the international break still winless at the start of the season.

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