Sometimes, the shadows can be a saviour. Steve Bruce has been protected by his critics’ inability to reach him this season. Stadiums are empty, press conferences are restricted to Zoom and, therefore, only half as intense and much more controlled. Scrutiny can be funnelled away with ease. As Newcastle United slipped to their 12th defeat in 16 matches in all competitions at Old Trafford on Sunday night and remained perched just above the relegation zone, Steve Bruce insisted he was confident of survival based on elements of the performance.
While Newcastle deserve some praise for their display in the first half, which ended level, plaudits and recognition are plastic at this stage given the predicament the club finds itself in. Manchester United had gears they could reach and barely hit full throttle as they wrapped up a 3-1 victory.
In isolation, losing at such a stadium and a team of that quality is nothing to write home about. Better Newcastle sides on paper have been on the end of much heavier beatings. But, in the context of recent form and the fact that a resurgent Fulham have been closing the gap on Newcastle, it was another example of why fans are now cutting through the noise and making their feelings known.
Steve Bruce saw the positives on Sunday and has maintained his belief that Newcastle United will be okay. He has said as much throughout the rotten spell of results; when the gap to Fulham stood at 10 points, then seven and now three, and that is just in the last couple of weeks. The calls for answers on his future are mostly coming from the fanbase; the same group who are feeling vindicated in voicing their opinions months ago only to be dismissed as negative or delusional by sections of the media and certain members of the pundits’ circuit.
But most of those people know that history suggests Bruce’s superiors will not move to terminate his reign; Mike Ashley is a gambler and Lee Charnley’s track record for big decisions is minimal. All the noises coming out of St James’ Park suggest it would take serious peril for them to act — Fulham could plunge them into the bottom three as early as this weekend — and even that may not be enough.
With that in mind, the fans are aware that they need to hear more from Bruce. It is important that he inspires them and regains the trust of those who have lost in in the near 20 months he has been in charge.
Perhaps there is a section who never accepted him, so disgusted were they with the departure of Rafael Benitez. His track-record has never stood up to the Spaniard’s, something he has openly conceded albeit begrudgingly and, at times, sarcastically. But the idea that winning over the wider Newcastle United support was an impossible job, something which has been suggested in his defence, is completely misrepresentative of the situation Steve Bruce finds himself in.
He is fighting against the tide because of results and an erosion of trust, in part because of empty statements. Newcastle are playing better than before, yet the walls are still closing in. At what point does the team begin justifying Bruce’s confidence? He will hope it is against Wolves on Saturday night, just as the fans will, but until it does, there is no reason to heed his words.
Poor communication has long been an issue for Bruce, and his attitude towards Newcastle’s plight could be described as apathetic. Of course he cares, that is not being disputed, but there is a feeling that with every answer to the big questions, he is trying to downplay the situation as if he is sticking his fingers in his ears and pretending he is unaware of it. In fact, that is a good way of characterising Newcastle’s approach as a whole.
Bruce is the club’s only public spokesman, like every manager under the current regime; while that is not his fault and something which deserves recognition, it also means the manager needs to offer more insight into why he feels he can improve matters if he wants a more favourable response from those with no say on the club’s future, but once again stand to lose more than anybody should disaster strike for a third time.
The same goes for his responses to tactical criticism, too. Over recent weeks, he has changed the system which has given the team a shot in the arm and resulted in a slight improvement. That has been a common theme of his time at Newcastle; Bruce’s identity and coaching philosophy are incredibly difficult to nail down. In complete contrast to Benitez, who drove his demands into his players daily and turned them into obedient, but effective, robots, the current incumbent of the dugout works off his feelings at any given moment.
He is on the record as not buying into the tactical side of football — increasingly its most important facet — and genuinely seems unwilling to take it on board. If a system works once, he tries it again with no regard for the match and how it will impact the opposition. Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel broke down exactly what he would do to combat Newcastle’s new diamond formation before executing his plan to perfection in a 2-0 victory at Stamford Bridge.
At the start of the season, following an impressive victory at West Ham, Bruce kept his structured 4-4-2, with the extremely immobile Andy Carroll up front, for the visit of Brighton because he thought changing would be unfair. The Seagulls’ movement and energy proved too much for Newcastle United that day, as they won 3-0 on Tyneside; not tailoring his plan for the game was costly for Steve Bruce.
His response to questions to a lack of an attacking plan earlier in the season was to claim he had thrown all his strikers on the pitch. It was something he has done more than once, and it worked a treat in victory over West Brom back in December, but he is too often caught out by a lack of specific planning. His view is a simplistic one; the more strikers there are on the pitch, the more chance of scoring, but that can’t be true if the team’s shape is lost as a direct consequence.
Newcastle are sleepwalking to a third relegation on Ashley’s watch, and that is the biggest problem. The same mistakes are being made and the same lack of forethought and culpability as before is evident; their preference for minimal communication has been fed by the circumstances of the pandemic. With a £305million takeover bid from the Saudi Arabia-led consortium, which Ashley badly wants, in the hands of legal authorities right now, he has more to lose than ever, and yet he is still gambling, still staying silent and still remaining in the shadows.
The hard truth of it is, with or without Steve Bruce, Newcastle United offer nothing in the way of hope of a brighter future in their current guise. While fans who eventually return to St James’ Park will voice their concerns, it should be remembered that 10,000 free season tickets were made available last season because a huge number had simply given up on a relationship which had become toxic and torturous. That is just as damning; people are simply asking what the point is.
There is a perception that Steve Bruce is working against the grain at Newcastle United in every direction. But he has been backed more than any manager under Ashley and isn’t displaying the thick skin he claims to have when it comes to criticism. He has alluded to the popularity of Benitez before, and perhaps that is tinged with envy; it does him no favours to be viewed as ‘Ashley’s man’, but if he wants to change that, he needs to treat both the press and fans better and give the latter a reason to believe he can turn the tide. Right now, Bruce is embodying Newcastle’s entire outlook on what is yet another cliff edge.
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