Steve Bruce's dangerous game at Newcastle United, player unrest, regrets & more  – Liam Kennedy's SEVEN Villa Park takeaways

Just when you think things can’t get any worse, Newcastle United take to the field again.

Sunday, 24th January 2021, 1:36 pm

‘The positives, the positives’, I hear Steve Bruce cry in his latest post-match ramblings.

I think even he, with a night to sleep on his side’s latest Premier League surrender, will admit there is very little to take from the Aston Villa loss, especially when context is applied. This was Newcastle United’s 10th game without a win in all competitions, a run which has seen them dumped out of the Carabao Cup by Brentford ‘B’, the FA Cup, and continue a toothless slide towards the relegation zone, whilst not only not scoring – they have one goal from open play since Leeds United pre-Christmas – but not even looking like scoring. Against anyone.

Here’s our Newcastle United writer Liam Kennedy’s SEVEN takeaways from the Villa Park defeat – spoiler, few are as positive as Bruce’s ‘encouraging signs’…

Aston Villa's Ollie Watkins scores his side's first goal of the game during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham.

Players aren’t playing, simple

Bruce can’t admit it publicly, but he doesn’t need to, as everyone can see it. The players are not playing for him.

It looks like the players aren’t particularly enjoying their football under Bruce. It doesn’t really look like they are delivering what he wants them too, either.

Heads drop when the going gets tough. The going is never better than tough to be honest.

The football is grim, even when he says it isn’t. No possession, no chances, no goals, no points. I struggle to see any footballer with a brain cell or two enjoying their work under those conditions, or, in fact, believing in the person orchestrating it.

Five, four or more – none of it matters

No matter the system, no matter the personnel, Newcastle are no longer defensively sound. They look like conceding goals against ANYONE.

That, to me, is down to coaching. When the players were coached within an inch of their lives they did look solid – this is largely the same players. Now they look like they’ve never played together and are so easy to pick apart.

Four at the back was porous and the previously tried and tested three-man/five-man backline, crafted under the ‘mighty Rafa’, is now just as bad.

It’s a coach's job to find answers, the concern is, does he know what the questions are?

Change is needed – bigger change than what is being offered

This looks like it is the end of the road for Bruce. He is speaking and acting like a manager whose days are done.

But this is Newcastle United – the only club who consistently, willfully drag themselves into Premier League relegation battles due to their own reluctance to arrest decline.

At St James’s Park you not only have to go over the hill, you have to drive 100 miles further down the road before you’re even at risk.

A new assistant coach does not solve this mess, nor does a few new players. These are sticking plasters. They will not cure the virus.

Bruce has all his eggs in one (or two) baskets

Listening to his post-match comments, Bruce has one last card to play. And he wants to hope it delivers.

He talked of never being able to field Allan Saint-Maximin and Ryan Fraser in the same side due to illness and injury.

Well, for a start neither can 100% be relied upon to remain fit – that’s the first concern, if Bruce believes the duo could be his ticket to a prolonged stay in the driving seat.

Secondly, neither have delivered this season when called upon. It would take a considerable upturn in form from both to ensure United keep their head above water.

Listening to Bruce, he’s putting a lot of hope and expectation on the duo, both of whom have flattered to deceive this season.

Jeff Hendrick and Jonjo Shelvey – the tryer and the non-tryer

I remember talking to someone about Jeff Hendrick when he signed – and the comments that came back were a concern.

"Sean Dyche loves him, always praises him, but sometimes it’s hard to know what he actually does.”

Now we all know. Hendrick runs, you can’t fault his fitness and commitment, but he can’t pass forward, tackle and never really gets close to anyone without the ball. It’s like watching a schoolboy chasing a ball around a playground, with the bigger kids not breaking sweat while they pass it around as if he’s not even there.

Jonjo Shelvey is different. He doesn’t try. If he did, he would have stopped the first goal. He could have, and many would have, but he didn’t. And he rarely ever does.

He is the best midfielder Newcastle have, on the ball. But he does not have the discipline, or can be trusted enough to fulfil his role without it. We can’t act surprised, though. We’ve always known this, and so too have successive managers in his career, even the one before Bruce at United.

Callum Wilson regrets

When Ollie Watkins bravely nodded in the opener, I wonder what was running through Callum Wilson’s mind. A penny for his thoughts.

He could have signed for Villa, he turned them down for Bruce and United. It could have been him turning in from close range – it was him earlier this season. Those goals, though, have dried up and he looks half the player signed in the summer.

He must wonder where his next goal is coming from. He isn’t getting close to a chance per game now, it's more like one every four or five. Contrast that with Villa's vibrancy, orchestrated by Jack Grealish. Wilson has to be wondering if he made a HUGE mistake heading that bit further north.

What next?

Three points, by hook or by crook. Anything else is unacceptable. Leeds will come to play – and can be exploited. But does Bruce have the plan to do that? Eighteen months in, that has to be seriously doubted.

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