The dramatic Newcastle United statistical shift since Steve Bruce ditched Rafa Benitez blueprint

Newcastle United have won two and drawn one of their games since Steve Bruce ditched Rafa Benitez’s blueprint – but success in terms of points and progression is not the only stat boost at St James’s Park.

Tuesday, 10th March 2020, 4:45 pm
Updated Tuesday, 10th March 2020, 4:45 pm
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21: Joelinton of Newcastle United warms up prior to the Premier League match between Everton FC and Newcastle United at Goodison Park on January 21, 2020 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Expected goals divides opinion among the United faithful, but it is a fair barometer to judge a side’s attacking intent and the quality of opportunities the team create.

And it’s fair to say there’s been a massive xG shift since Bruce binned 3-4-2-1 in favour of his favoured 4-2-3-1, according to Wyscout.

xG pre-shift (3-4-2-1)

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In the eight games in all competitions prior to Bruce ditching Benitez’s tried and tested formula, United managed to score six goals in total. In the Premier League – six games – that was just three goals, while United drew a blank in FOUR of those encounters – Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers.

It was the Palace game which proved the straw that broke the camel’s back for Bruce and his coaches, as he shunned his well-stocked backline in favour of getting more players in advanced positions.

When it comes to xG the stats pre-shift are damning. At Selhurst Park United’s xG was just 0.14 as they failed to create anything meaningful in front of goal. The same can be said at Arsenal, take out Joelinton’s scuffed effort, as their xG returned as 1.13. Norwich at home, another bore draw, was 0.68, while the Chelsea win was 0.65 and Wolves before it 0.27.

Everton was United’s best return in the eight games pre-shift with the 2-2 registering an away team 1.88, just shy of the two Florian Lejeune stuck away in added time.

In the FA Cup things were a little better – 1.43 & 1.87 against Oxford United – but the level of opposition must be taken into account.

xG post-shift (4-2-3-1)

An often five-man backline, now sees four men in attacking positions at times. To the naked eye it’s been easy to see how Bruce’s United look a little more of a force in the final third – but do the stats back that up?

Well, in short, yes they do.

A Premier League xG average of 0.79 for the six games prior to the move to four at the back has gone up considerably.

In fact, United are creating chances of sufficient quality to have scored more than two goals per game for the first time in 2020 following the system switch.

Bruce opted for the 4-2-3-1 formation in each of the last three games, at Southampton and home to Burnley in the Premier League, as well as the FA Cup fifth round clash at the Hawthorns against West Brom.

While United drew another blank against Sean Dyche’s men in front of their home crowd, this game was not without action. Some poor finishing saw United register 21 shots at goal in a total of 97 minutes, in which the introduction of Dwight Gayle seemed to make a considerable difference.

United’s xG that day registered as 2.32. This was the highest xG since the Rochdale away draw on January 4 and the highest in the Premier League since the 2-1 home win over AFC Bournemouth on November 9, 2019.

Last midweek changes in personnel for the FA Cup did little to dampen the quality of chances created by Newcastle.

Gayle dropped out, Joelinton went back up top, Valentino Lazaro and Allan Saint-Maximin came back in but United again recorded an xG of 1.88 in their 3-2 victory, which saw them progress to the sixth round of the competition since 2006.

Southampton on Saturday saw United produce their second highest xG of the last 12 months, even dating back to the remarkable late season run under Benitez. The 2.98 xG has been bettered only once looking at the stats back to March 2019, and it was that previously mentioned Bournemouth game in November, in which DeAndre Yedlin and Ciaran Clark continued the early season trend of defenders leading the way at the opposite end of the pitch, as the Magpies came from behind to claim three points against the Cherries.

The obvious caveat to this was that United played against 10-men from 28 minutes onwards, but even before that should have been ahead, due to the clear-cut chances created.

Summary – pre-shift (3-4-2-1) v post-shift (4-2-3-1)

Do Newcastle United look like scoring more goals in this new formation? Yes.

Do the stats back this theory up? Again, yes.

Is this the way forward for United? The jury remains out on this one.

Three performances against a limited (attack-wise) Burnley side, second string West Brom and Southampton minus a man does not prove that the Magpies have shunned their shot-shy, goal-shy ways for a free-flowing brand of football. But, importantly, the signs of improvement are clear.

Bigger tests lie ahead for Bruce and United. And with safety almost assured and an FA Cup last eight tie v Manchester City on the horizon, it’ll be interesting to see what Bruce opts for against the Premier League champions, given United’s three/five-man backline has done wonders for frustrating Pep Guardiola & Co on Tyneside in recent years.