Sunday Supplement: Newcastle and Steve Bruce's management debated
Newcastle 10th in Premier League, seven points above drop zone
Last Updated: 03/02/20 12:57pm
Are Newcastle a directionless team fortunate to be out of the relegation zone or one punching above their weight under the smart management of Steve Bruce?
They were the two sides of the debate on Sunday Supplement after Newcastle's 0-0 draw at home to bottom club Norwich.
That result left Newcastle with one win from their past seven Premier League matches - but also in the top half of the table in 10th spot.
For Daily Mail football correspondent Craig Hope, who covers the club, this is a team who have ridden their luck and, according to their underlying statistics, should be in the relegation zone.
"The more I watch that team this season, the less I understand football," said Hope. "There is no clear identity of what they want to achieve but, somehow, they find themselves in 10th and relatively comfortable.
"This might sound ridiculous, but this has been relegation season in all but points tally, it really has. In every measurable degree - possession, shots conceded, shots on target, goals, goals conceded - everything you want they are in the bottom three, but somehow, they have found a way to win matches, and that is to Steve's credit.
Newcastle's worrying stats
|Stat||Newcastle total||Premier League rank|
|Shots on target||82||16th|
"They have found ways to win matches through a combination of good fortune, a brilliant goalkeeper, Martin Dubravka, who emerges as man of the match every week and things you probably cannot quantify like spirit, teamwork, work ethic and the rest of it.
"But you watch them against Norwich and you still think, 'what are they really trying to achieve?'. What is Steve Bruce sending them out to do?
"They should've been beaten by Norwich. It was incredible that they emerged with a goalless draw really, but that's how they've played all season only minus the late goals to bail them out.
"Defenders have scored 12 out of 24 goals, there's very little imagination in the final third, they have got four strikers who have got one goal between them and they've got an £80m strike force, if you include the wingers, who have only scored four times between them this season.
"Over time, if you map it out, the way they are playing they should really be in the bottom three.
"Expected goals would have Newcastle bottom of the Premier League on nine points. Forget all of that though and just believe your eyes. I watch this team and it's a band of brothers if you like, who keep on going to the end, but it's not a good team.
"I worry that over time they will probably revert to what they deserve and that is a team that should really be in the relegation mix."
Style of play
Hope has praise for Newcastle's spirit and the mentality across the team but believes the players have the quality to play better football than they currently are under Bruce.
"To Steve's credit, the players have never really downed tools. In one or two games this season they have but there has always been a response, and that is massively to his credit," said Hope.
"I have committed that to print too but the bigger picture in where they are going, where they are going under Steve, I don't yet see what he wants to do with this team.
There isn't a style of play. The style of play is go out and play relatively poorly, give the ball to the opposition, don't create any chances and hope you nick something late on.
Craig Hope on Sunday Supplement
"There isn't a style of play. The style of play is go out and play relatively poorly, give the ball to the opposition, don't create any chances and hope you nick something late on.
"There is that [the idea he can only work with what he's got] but I still suspect that this team is better than how they are playing at the moment. Steve comes back to saying they are limited, they can't do what he wants and that he's got to revert back to Rafa Benitez's tactics, which in the first half of last season certainly was sit deep, keep it tight, don't give away many chances and see what you can get on the break.
"However, that ignores the fact that at the back end of last season, under Benitez, they'd actually developed into a pretty free-flowing, attacking team, who was good to watch. This year they've been anything but that. For the large part, it's been awful."
'Don't underestimate Bruce'
On the other side of the debate, Henry Winter, the chief football writer at the Times, defended the work of Bruce, insisting the strengths which had helped Newcastle up the table - goals from defenders and team spirit, for instance - can be traced back to the work of the manager - who shouldn't be held accountable for poor recruitment.
"I agree with the point about Benitez - that was crazy that he left - but they are above Arsenal," said Winter. "How many of Newcastle's players would get into Arsenal's starting XI. Not actually that many and that's great credit to Steve Bruce.
For me, some of the players at the club don't look good enough but you can't blame Bruce for the whole creation of the squad.
Henry Winter on Sunday Supplement
"You talk about the team spirit and the work ethic; the manager sets the tone for that. You make the point about the goals and that 12 of 24 have come from defenders, let's break that down. How many of those have come from set-pieces? Should Bruce actually get some credit for that because of the coaching?
"Is it about the manager's tactics? You've got this magical individual in Allan Saint-Maximin, and we all love watching him play, and if Bruce's tactics are give him the ball and let him do his magic.
"It's a reflection of squad strength and is the manager solely responsible for recruitment at the club? For me, some of the players at the club don't look good enough but you can't blame Bruce for the whole creation of the squad.
"Was Joelinton a Steve Bruce signing? How can you blame Bruce for that if he's dealing with the strange recruitment of other individuals?
"I wouldn't underestimate Steve Bruce. I'm looking at him from the outside - as someone who has covered his career as a player and also, having interviewed him all the way down the line - and there is a passionate football man, who, because of his engaging character, people underestimate the fact there is a tactical mind in there.
"You look at the managers he has worked under, particularly Sir Alex Ferguson. Looking at it from the outside, whenever I see Newcastle United, often they are punching above their weight in terms of the squad he's been given.
"It's the slight issue that he's not Rafa Benitez, he's seen as Mike Ashley's man and he won't go out and criticise him. We all criticise him and I completely emphasise with the Newcastle fans, Ashley is not a great owner of Newcastle United. However, Bruce is not going to stand up in a press conference and criticise Ashley."
Benitez v Bruce
After 25 games of this season, Newcastle have 31 points. They had just 24 points from the same number of games under Benitez last season. So is that an example of Bruce being unfairly criticised in contrast to his much-respected predecessor?
"This comparison they've drawn all season," Hope said. "Newcastle had a very difficult first half to the season last year.
"What that comparison fails to recognise and ignores is that during the second half of the season they were in the top six. The longer the team is exposed to Rafa the better they get and towards the back end of last season Newcastle were magnificent and they were going in a direction they hadn't been previously.
"But this year, forget the numbers and believe your eyes, that is a team that has regressed on what we saw at the back end of last season. They've lost a couple of big players in Ayoze Perez and Salomon Rondon but they've also brought in Allan Saint-Maximin and Joelinton, players Steve Bruce said he was more than happy to have and cost £60m."
Saudi Arabia's Sovereign Wealth Fund are in talks to buy Newcastle, Sky Sports News has confirmed.
However, Hope is sceptical about whether they will be successful.
"I've got a lot of experience of false/fabricated/failed takeovers," he said. "On the evidence of what I've heard and what I've seen over the past 10 days, I've seen nothing to convince me this is a) genuine or b) going to happen.
"That's certainly a sentiment which is being echoed in the football club at senior level, I think. We sat down with Steve on Friday and we had a conversation on and off the record about the takeover. Steve, on the record, said I've heard nothing, I've been told nothing.
"It's Amanda Staveley plus the Saudi royal family plus the Reuben brothers from London. That's the current takeover. It's been reported as it was going to happen on Wednesday, it was going to happen on Friday. Those deadlines have come and gone.
"The problem we've got - and certainly the club have got - and Steve is very sceptical in this regard, is it's the same characters, the same faces who appeared two years ago saying the same things.
"Ultimately that led to Mike Ashley calling Amanda Staveley a time-waster in public. I've seen nothing to make me believe anything different this time around.
"To sell a football club you've got to have a buyer. And in my mind Mike Ashley has never had a viable, legitimate buyer for that football club in the six years I've covered them for the Daily Mail.
"Two, should a buyer present itself, would he want to sell? We don't know. I can't see why he would want to sell.
"As long as that football club is ticking over in the Premier League, it's a wonderful vehicle for his sports brand."