Steve Bruce got what he wanted from Newcastle United – for 45 minutes
There’s slow progress and no progress. And Newcastle United are making slow progress.
Steve Bruce was keen to stress that the club wasn’t “stagnating” before the game. That, in Bruce’s view, was a “myth” given his 13th-placed team’s points total, which still stands at 43 following a disappointing 2-1 behind-closed-doors defeat to Watford at Vicarage Road this afternoon.
Bruce had demanded a response from his team following Wednesday evening’s 5-0 awful defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.
United’s head coach – who had also called for a decision on the proposed Newcastle takeover from the Premier League – got the response he wanted for the first 45 minutes. After that, it was a different story.
Bruce again fielded defender Fabian Schar, so disappointing against City, out of position in midfield alongside Jonjo Shelvey, while midfielder Matty Longstaff was named among the substitutes.
Longstaff, out of contract at the end of the season, is wanted by Udinese, run by the Pozzo family, who also own Watford. The 20-year-old – who hasn’t started a Premier League game since January – didn’t get off the bench.
Newcastle made a positive start. Allan Saint-Maximin, rested at the Etihad Stadium, delivered a dangerous ball from the right. Miguel Almiron threw himself at it, but couldn’t connect.
Watford, however, threatened when they did get forward. Jamaal Lascelles, back from injury, hooked the ball off the line in the 16th minute after a shot from Danny Welbeck struck the post.
Thankfully, the first goal came at the other end of the pitch. Federico Fernandez headed on a 23rd-minute corner from Matt Ritchie, and Dwight Gayle, having anticipated the flick-on, prodded the ball home at the far post.
That was as good as it got for Newcastle, who took their advantage into the break. It was was a different story after the restart.
Matt Ritchie caught Kiko Femenia in the box in the 52nd minute, and Troy Deeney converted the resulting penalty. Deeney should have scored a second after Fernandez gifted him the ball, but Martin Dubravka stopped his shot.
Deeney got another chance from the spot after Javier Manquillo clumsily bundled over Kiko Fememia – and he took it to claim all three points for Watford.
Bruce felt that both penalties were “soft”,
“I thought the first penalty was really, really soft,” said Bruce. “I’m not one to make excuses, but to lose games like we did today on those big decisions ... it’s difficult to accept.
“Whether we were naive, or they were really soft, I’ll let someone else make that judgement.”
What really was soft was his team’s second-half performance at the empty stadium. And it now gets harder for Newcastle, who have Tottenham Hotspur, Brighton and Hove Albion and Liverpool left to play.
A top-10 finish is now almost certainly beyond United, who are six points behind 10th-placed Tottenham.
Yes, Newcastle haven’t stagnated under Bruce, but this team, this club, should be aiming far, far higher.