This is why Steve Bruce's Newcastle United tactics are again under scrutiny
“What do you not understand?”
That was Steve Bruce’s response to another question about his tactics earlier this month.
Newcastle United’s head coach was on a Zoom call with journalists ahead of the home game against Burnley, which his team went on to deservedly win 3-1.
Bruce went on: “I'm going to question you lot – do you not understand what we’re trying to do? Can you not explain that to the supporters, what we are trying to do? The frustrating part is where has that come from all of a sudden?”
The truth is that Bruce’s tactics and team selection have been scrutinised from very early on – and not just by reporters.
Bruce, keen to get on the front foot, admitted that he tried to change too much, too soon, and he ended up reverting back to the more defensive, counter-attacking tactics of Rafa Benitez, his predecessor, just over a year ago after a 5-1 defeat to Leicester City.
The 59-year-old – who faced questions about his team’s “identity” at previous club Aston Villa – had more success when he changed the formation later on that season.
Bruce, in the same interview, explained that what he was trying to do – and also demanded more “balance” in the reporting of his team.
"The style is we’re going from a back five to a back four, with one off the front … to move away from defending deep and playing on the counter-attack,” said Bruce.
Yet fans are still asking what Bruce is trying to do – and questioning his tactics.
There was more criticism of Bruce after Saturday night’s 4-1 defeat to Manchester United. Three of the visitors’ goals came in the final few minutes, when Newcastle were punished for being “naive”.
Bruce had set up his team in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Isaac Hayden – who would be forced off with a hamstring problem – protecting the back four. Bruce, understandably, left Ryan Fraser and Miguel Almiron on the bench given their exertions during the international break.
Newcastle took the lead through an own goal – then sat back. They just couldn’t get the ball, and Alan Shearer told of his “disappointment” on Match of the Day.
"It was a poor performance,” said Shearer. "They got the goal, and then just went back and sat back.
"They couldn't get anywhere near them on the ball, kept knocking it long. The ball kept coming back into them, and I thought they were really, really poor.”
Fans were even more critical, with many frustrated that Newcastle hadn’t been set up to attack a team which had been beaten 6-1 by Tottenham Hotspur a fortnight earlier.
And that’s the thing. We know how Bruce wants to play, but he’s pragmatic enough to accept that his team can’t be too attack-minded against the better teams.
As such, he’s chopped and changed systems. Tactical changes, of course, were something that Benitez was often lauded for during his time on Tyneside.
Newcastle supporters, however, have been critical of Bruce’s tweaks. Bruce wants to go on the attack, but the team also needs to be able to defend – and Karl Darlow has made more saves (28) than any other goalkeeper.
Bruce is right. Balance is needed – and not just from journalists.