Steve Bruce is slowly turning the tide at Newcastle United – and tactical pragmatism is at the heart of his success
Newcastle United have taken 10 points from the last 15 available in the Premier League.
It’s a run which has seen them climb out of the top flight bottom three and into the relative safety of mid-table.
While manager Steve Bruce got the stick when the chips were down, it’s only fair he gets the acclaim when things start heading in the right direction.
Here our writers assess Bruce’s season so far, what he’s done well at United and how a decision on Monday could define much of the season.
Out of 10 rate Steve Bruce's season so far?
LK: “A few weeks back I said 6/10. He’s definitely up to 7/10 now. And even saying that, it feels a little harsh, especially off the back of a sequence of games which saw United produce arguably their best three performances under Bruce – Manchester United, West Ham United (for 70 minutes) and Bournemouth.”
JC: “6. Up until the end of October, Newcastle were tipped to be in another relegation crisis with the lack of goals apparent. However, the start of November has certainly lifted the spirit around St James’s Park, scoring five goals in their previous two games compared to the six in 10 at the beginning. Back-to-back wins and a seven-point advantage over the relegation places is a very, very good return but let’s not get carried away.”
Do you believe Bruce is starting to turn the tide at NUFC?
LK: “Yes. No football fan wants to admit to the fact they’re fickle. You might not believe it, but we all are. Results matter just as much as anything else. I am by no means downplaying what has gone before, and continues to go on at the top end of the club – my views on Mike Ashley and the departure of Rafa Benitez are well documented – but a winning team can always hide a multitude of sins. And being truthful, it is. Bruce is a beneficiary of that – and so he should be!”
JC: “I’ll give credit where it’s due. A little tactical tweak from Bruce in the last two games with the centre-halves and wing-backs has Newcastle looking like a solid and somewhat exciting proposition. The front three of Joelinton, Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin seem to be growing in confidence. If Bruce can get those firing then he is laughing.”
Name the thing that has impressed you most about Bruce's United side?
LK: “Tactical pragmatism. Steve Bruce was quite remarkably quoted, while manager of rivals Sunderland, as saying: "I'm not really into tactics”. To be fair to him, that was from back in 2011. Bruce has evolved since then, and he’s had to. He’s even shown signs of evolution at United. Bruce started the season with the idea of four at the back and two up top. He tried the former first with no result then tested the former in disastrous fashion at Leicester City. This forced Bruce back to the drawing board. He then took Benitez’s notes, set the team up like last season, and slowly tweaked. This is a Rafa+ side. All the defensive organisation, shape and breaks (if more open to counters) with added emphasis on width, the full-backs and central defenders becoming extra attackers (with the ball).”
JC: “I admire the fact Bruce hasn’t walked through the door and said: ‘it’s my way and we’ll stick to it’. Bruce brutally found out at Leicester City that a 4-4-2 formation for this Newcastle team at present is not the way forward. Instead of showing the arrogance (if that’s the right word) and sticking to it, he built on Rafa Benitez’s system. In doing so, while United are probably a bit more open at the back, the attack is more expansive than it was under Rafa. Bruce spoke about handing players the freedom to play and over the last two games, that’s what he has done to some degree.”
Where can Bruce & United finish this season - will it still be a relegation battle or can they look a little higher?
LK: “Newcastle will no doubt be there or thereabouts but you’d like to think this team has enough in it to stay clear of relegation. They’re probably not as bad as some of their early season performances suggested and may well not be as good, consistently, as now. A lack of goals from the forwards is a footnote worth hanging on to despite the recent performances. A caveat to that is at least the chances are starting to flow.”
JC: “I’ve always maintained that Newcastle have enough equality in the squad to stay in the division, the doubt I had was Bruce. For now, I’ll eat sour grapes because he’s proved the doubters wrong. There will be times this season when he will undoubtedly come under criticism, mostly because fans don’t want to admit their wrong but I think he will do what is asked of him - and that is keep the club in the Premier League.”
On the selection front, who replaces Jamaal Lascelles on Monday?
LK: “Florian Lejeune, for me, is the best all round defender at the club. Sadly we’ve just not seen enough of him. It may take him some time to get back up to speed so it’s got to be Fabian Schar with Federico Fernandez moving into the centre.”
JC: “It depends on the availability of Fabian Schar. If the Switzerland international is fit, I’d go with him, Fernandez Fernandez in the centre and Ciaran Clark. If not, stick Paul Dummett in there. Florian Lejeune might not be ready yet.”
Who gets the United armband in Lascelles' absence? And how big a decision is it?
LK: “For me it is a MASSIVE call. What Lascelles lacks compared to others in the United squad he more than makes up for with his outstanding, galvanising, brutally honest leadership. Swap that for a lesser character and things could unravel if results go south. We are not talking about a two-game suspension here, this stand-in skipper will have to lead United potentially through to February. The games between now and then are high in volume, and as a result, season-defining. I think Jonjo Shelvey will get it. I’d be happy seeing an Isaac Hayden or Ciaran Clark get the nod.”
JC: “Jonjo Shelvey will probably get the nod but I don’t necessarily think that is the right call. The call Bruce makes on Monday should be the player who will take the armband until Lascelles returns. I’ve never rated Shelvey as a leader nor do I think he’ll retain his place. For me, I’d go with Isaac Hayden. Virtually guaranteed a place in the starting 11 and is a consistent performer.”