Mike Ashley's decision not to sack Steve Bruce at Newcastle United could prove costly
Mike Ashley has gambled before as Newcastle United owner. And Ashley’s seemingly taken his biggest punt yet.
Bruce’s team have won just two of their last 18 Premier League games. Just two. That’s relegation form, and you’d struggle to find a single United fan who believes Bruce can turn things around between now and the end of the season.
The team looked gone at the Amex Stadium, lifeless and listless, and washed up on the South Coast. Bruce’s position appeared to be untenable at the final whistle.
Newcastle are just two points above the Premier League’s relegation zone going into the international break. The two-week break, of course, would give a new head coach time to prepare for the April 4 home game against Tottenham Hotspur, but there won’t be a managerial change at St James’s Park.
Ashley made it clear this morning that Bruce – who has a year left on his contract – retained his support. He likes Bruce’s “passion” for the club – and believes his managerial experience will prove all-important.
Bruce, for his part, reiterated that he would never walk away from the job. He also insisted that he was the best person to get Newcastle out of the mess which most supporters believe he got the club into.
Rafa Benitez, Bruce’s predecessor, built solid foundations during his three years on Tyneside, but they have been crumbling for some time.
This season should have been about a push for a top-10 place, yet the club has been pulled ever closer to the relegation zone since December.
Yes, the Covid-19 outbreak at the club – and injuries to key players – have been factors, but they don’t account for everything that’s happened on and off the pitch this season.
Bruce didn’t settle on a way of playing until Graeme Jones’s arrival in January, and he wasn’t able to successfully tweak the system following the loss of Callum Wilson, Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin to injuries.
Under-performing players, notably Jonjo Shelvey, are seemingly undroppable, and Matty Longstaff, one player capable of pressing high up the pitch, inexplicably can’t even get on the bench when the team is crying out for willing runners.
If the team is to play a pressing game, it needs players who can press.
Elliot Anderson, at least, should be on the bench as a wild card, but he, like Longstaff, hasn’t been in recent squads. Bruce needs a bit of fearlessness in the forward positions.
Bruce, quickly, needs to get the balance right between youth and experience, and his faith in Shelvey is baffling given his performances over the past few months. What message does this send out to the rest of the squad?
Ashley’s faith in Bruce is also surprising given what’s at stake.
The billionaire – who still hopes to sell the club for £300million to a Saudi Arabia-backed consortium – has made many costly mistakes since buying the club.
And supporters fear this will be his costliest yet.