Do Newcastle United have 'adequate cover' in attack? Steve Bruce's options assessed as Callum Wilson fears grow
Steve Bruce stated Newcastle United had “adequate cover” in attack in the event of Callum Wilson getting injured.
Speaking after the 1-1 pre-season draw at Rotherham United in July, Bruce said: "We’ve got Allan, Joe, Almiron. We’ve got Dwight. We’ve got five. How many do you have in a squad of 22 outfield players?
"The midfield area is a must, in my opinion. We’ll look to try and strengthen there first. When everybody’s right, then I think we’ve got adequate cover up there.”
Well, less than just four games into the season, that theory will be put to the test with Wilson reportedly set for a spell on the sidelines – worst-case scenario being up to six weeks.
As well as missing Friday’s night clash with Leeds United at St James’s Park, the 29-year-old could also sit out of games against Watford and Wolves prior to October international break.
Here, we take a look at the options available to Bruce in Wilson’s absence:
The Brazilian was recalled to the starting XI in Wilson’s absence and started on the left-hand side during the 4-1 defeat at Old Trafford.
In a small formation tweak to help combat Manchester United’s attacking talent, Allan Saint-Maximin led the line with Joelinton and Miguel Almiron in support.
And still, two and a bit years since his record £40million arrival at Newcastle, Joelinton’s best position remains a mystery.
Bruce has tended to use the 25-year-old in a wide position but to the player’s credit, he did show an improvement when deployed in a front two during the latter stages of last season.
That said, it’s become apparent that he is not an out-and-out striker having scored just six career Premier League goals.
Bearing in mind Joelinton was called upon by Bruce on Saturday and did quite well physically, you’d suspect he is most likely to stay in the team.
Dwight Gayle is the closest player Newcastle have to Wilson in terms of being a natural goalscorer and just having that knowhow.
However, questions remain over his ability to score goals in the Premier League. In a Championship team, he’s a 20+ goals season man.
To put that into context, Gayle has 59 goals in 100 Championship appearances. In the top-flight, it’s 26 in 137.
The flip side of that however is the 30-year-old has rarely been given an opportunity, not least under Bruce. When he was given a run of games at the end of the 2019/20 campaign, Gayle scored four in eight matches.
Injuries, of course, have played their part but Gayle has been fit since December last year, and he’s started just four times in the league, a few of which were as a ‘split striker’, i.e winger.
His only appearance this season came in the Carabao Cup, so it really does beg the question of why Gayle was offered and signed a new three-year deal in the summer.
Bruce has said time after time he is a big fan of Gayle – perhaps it’s time to translate that appraisal into actual minutes on the pitch.
If Allan Saint-Maximin’s fit, he starts – no fan will disagree with that statement. But what can be assessed is the Frenchman in the 5-3-2 system.
Essentially, as a recognised winger, Saint-Maximin is now, more than ever, tasked with spearheading United’s central forward line, as he did at Old Trafford.
Square peg in a round hole? The current formation has plenty of that – see two widemen in Jacob Murphy and Matt Ritchie as wing-backs – even though Saint-Maximin has proved to be effective in it.
His goal record, for a makeshift striker, is low having scored just three times last season. One in 2021/22 so far.
That said, it’s easy to ignore or gloss over that because of what he brings to the team in terms of his overall play. That’s his main attribute and Newcastle are severely weakened without him.
Now Wilson is out, any spell on the sidelines for the Frenchman is simply unthinkable.
If there were any players who would benefit from a more advanced role then it’s Miguel Almiron.
Almiron’s best Newcastle form post-Rafa Benitez came when assistant coach Graeme Jones arrived in January 2020, with the Paraguayan excelling in a false nine role in that ‘split striker’ system.
With the initial upturn in results failing to last, Almiron has since been dropped into a deeper midfield three, where at times, he has looked lost. The effort, hardwork, and energy from Almiron remains but the attacking side has swiftly declined.
Admittedly, his display at Man United was his strongest in a good few games. And behind Wilson and Saint-Maximin, Almiron is arguably United’s best forward, so perhaps he should be given the opportunity to step up the field.
That, however, does mean two recognised wingers form the front two, which could raise the suggestion of a potential change in the system.
Getting the most out of his only summer signing must come into Bruce’s thinking.
It’s very early days but Willock is yet to score for Newcastle since joining permanently from Arsenal on the back of scoring a remarkable eight goals in 14 games last term.
By doing that, the 22-year-old took the onus away from the attackers to comfortably keep the club in the Premier League.
It was always going to be unlikely that Willock would keep up such form, but getting him back among the goals is imperative.