There’s a hazardous, indeterminate balancing act ongoing at St James’ Park at the moment. Head coach Steve Bruce and recently-appointed assistant Graeme Jones are simultaneously precariously poised on Newcastle United’s Premier League tightrope.
There has been more to be positive about since Jones came in, but even that small bounce – a stark contrast to the perpetual dross served up by coaches Bruce, Steve Agnew and Stephen Clemence – has lost its shine. And now, it is even posing more questions than there are answers.
The power lines are broken, confused. The communication is even more blurred and unclear than it was before.
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And for that reason it is fair to ask – does the appointment of Jones require a short-term re-evaluation?
Newcastle United fans strived to see an identity under Bruce, an identity far outreaching the head coach’s desire simply to play four at the back and two up front. There was a want for tactical nuance, a pressing game, energy, changes, a coherent approach and style, an adaptability.
And it’s fair to say, like it or loathe it, many of those boxes have been ticked since native Jones walked through the door.
All of this is relative, of course. Newcastle have still been poor, but not as poor as they were before.
A very basic look at the statistics proves that.
Nine games. Two wins, three draws and four losses.
A clear improvement on the eight losses and solitary point which went in the nine that preceded it – the run that included two cup exits, one to Championship Brentford and THAT Sheffield United debacle. Although, it’s hard to see how things could have dipped any lower for Newcastle United. And, it must be noted, the Magpies are now without a win in six games, this unwanted run achieved, unsurprisingly, without the goalscoring prowess of potential top flight lifeline (last hope?), Callum Wilson.
Since the Jones semi-reboot, Newcastle have taken nine points from a possible 27, but find themselves closer to the relegation zone than when he arrived. They were seven clear of third-bottom when the former Belgium assistant manager was parachuted into action on his native Tyneside. Now the gap is just two, although it is now United with the game in hand, albeit at Liverpool, instead of Scott Parker’s Cottagers having played less games.
The absence of Wilson – and to a slightly lesser extent Miguel Almiron, and even less so Allan Saint-Maximin – has been huge. It isn’t why Newcastle are in this mess, they’ve been poor when all three were fit this season, but it has been enough to jolt the late winter shoots of recovery and herald the spring of discontent which now spreads its roots far and wide across the landscape on Tyneside.
"We are coming to the tickly part,” said Bruce in late February. “When the daffodils are up, that is the sign the crux part is upon us.” Yeah, I’m not sure what he means either. I think he likes flowers.
The injuries to the key United trio has proven deeply problematic for Jones’ ideal 4-3-3 with split strikers and a false nine.
It worked when Almiron was breaking lines and finding holes between them in the centre. And when Wilson was bamboozling defenders with his wider starting position, opening up gaps galore around him, as well as continuing to pop up in the places where goals are born, attacking from more acute angles. Saint-Maximin has always just been lightning flash Saint-Maximin, no matter the system – apart from when Bruce tried him as a free-role No.10, we NEVER want to go back there.
Thing is, Joelinton is no Wilson. Ryan Fraser is no Almiron, neither is Joe Willock. Dwight Gayle, tried in all three roles across the front at one stage, doesn’t fit in any of the positions.
And that’s where pragmatism surely comes into play.
If Jones was able to change things around so quickly on arrival, why has he not been able to look at the players at his disposal and find a working formula?
Find a way for Gayle to be more central, as he is the only player who has goals in him? Find a way to use Jacob Murphy and Fraser in their rightful roles, no need to shoehorn anyone in? Even find a way for Andy Carroll?
But no. United have stuck rigidly to Jones’ idealism.
Six games without a win and counting at a season-defining point of the campaign. It hasn’t worked.
Jones was heralded when United fans could see real change. Any part Bruce played, however big or small, was shunned.
Now the darkest of days return, their basis cannot be found in Bruce’s limitations alone. Jones must shoulder the blame, too.
Jones was never meant to be the long-term answer. He was Mike Ashley, Justin Barnes and Lee Charnley’s sticking plaster – the appointment they hoped would see United over the line, leaving two parts of that trio to concentrate on sorting out their off-field legal battles for change of ownership.
Some would argue the appointment, although it freshened things up, has succeeded in not only blurring the lines further, but also prolonging the Bruce agony.
It feels like United took one step forward in the desperation appointment of Jones but have now taken two back.
United can still remain in the division – it wouldn’t take Champions League form to avoid the Championship. They just have to be ‘less awful’ than Fulham, who despite recent results have been generally poor in accumulating wins and points themselves.
Is Jones a one-trick tactical pony or can he pull another season-saving tweak out the bag?
Both men must face the music come what May, and while Bruce will take the flak, at this stage, Jones looks far from blameless.