Should Steve Bruce be more worried about relegation than he appears?


Newcastle United have lost their last two games. They haven’t scored a goal. Both games were admittedly away from home in London, but both were against sides very close to them in the league.

The 4-0 loss at Arsenal was largely due to a second half defensive collapse although the Tyneside outfit were largely outplayed from the 20th minute onwards.

At Selhurst Park on Saturday, they were comprehensively outfought and dominated by a Crystal Palace side who had lost their last three games and were yet to record a win in the calendar year.

Manager Steve Bruce appears, outwardly at least, not to be panicking at any upcoming relegation struggle. To be absolutely fair, why should he? No manager knows this territory better than Bruce.

“Newcastle made a side bereft of any recent reason for hope look as confident as Liverpool waiting for a VAR decision on a penalty at the Kop End.”

Newcastle United is the fifth club he has managed in the Premier League.

He guided Birmingham City to promotion in 2001/02 Bruce and kept the Blues in the Premier League for four consecutive seasons before relegation in 2006. They were down for just one year.

Having managed lowly Wigan Athletic from November 2007, he took the Latics to an incredible 11th place in the 2008/09 Premier League season before leaving for Sunderland in the close season.

Unlike most other coaches at the Stadium of Light recently, Sunderland under Bruce never worried about the drop, finishing 10th and 13th under him.

However he was sacked in November 2011, sat the remainder of the season out and joined Hull City in June 2012. He took them up in his first season.

The following season, the Humbersiders enjoyed their best ever, finishing 16th in the top tier with a club record tally of 37 points and reaching the final of the FA Cup for the first time.

Hull were relegated in 2014/15 but once again, he oversaw their immediate promotion. However, it was time to move on and he landed, controversially for an ex Birmingham manager, at Aston Villa.

They made it to the playoff final at Wembley but lost 1-0 to Fulham.

History repeated itself when he took over at Newcastle, having once been manager of local rivals Sunderland.

He made some eye catching signings notably securing Joelinton from TSG Hoffenheim for £40 million, breaking the club’s transfer fee record previously set six months earlier by the purchase of Miguel Almirón, still a player under Bruce, for £21 million from Major League Soccer.

So if any man knows that foggy area between the bottom of the EPL and top of the Championship, it’s Steve Bruce.

Looking at the current table, it’s not difficult to see why he is fairly relaxed.

Although West Ham’s temporary lead at Anfield cannot have helped his heart, the 18th placed side eventually lost to leave him seven not six points away from the drop.

The bottom of the EPL after Feb 25 games

Also reassuring is the sheer distance between his side and Norwich and the current lousy form of  Bournemouth, who seem to have coupled the enmity of both the injury gods and VAR if their recent 3-0 loss to Burnley is any evidence.

But there are opinions out there that suggest Bruce should be worried.

On BBC’s Match of the Day, pundit Martin Keown commented:

“It’s a miracle Newcastle aren’t in the bottom three.”

In conversation with local Novocastrian journalists at Selhurst, it emerged that Keown’s opinion was not an outlier.

One said the season was a ‘shambles’. Another reeled off a list of games that Newcastle had won, but undeservedly so, suggesting a concern that such fortune cannot last forever and soon they will start losing those games where they are not the better side.

Selhurst Park proved him right.

Bruce said that the first half at Arsenal was the “best football we’ve played all year”. By half time, Arsenal were already totally in control. Many media concluded later that Bruce must have been talking about the calendar year rather than the season.

Unlike at the Emirates however, where Newcastle did indeed show early promise and managed to eke their way behind the Arsenal lines through the excellence of Allan Saint-Maimin and Miguel Amiron, they were under the Palace cosh from the beginning last Saturday south of the river.

The first defence for his perceived calm is fair. He doesn’t share his views with the media (and by extension the fans):

“I’ve always believed that what’s said in changing rooms stays there. I wasn’t happy with us at all and I can say that. It stays in there and that’s most important.”

But fans have a right and some might say a psychological need, to know that those with the power to change things are as angry as they are.

They are the ones expected to travel large distances and spend large amounts of money supporting the team in difficult away games. They need to know Bruce and his players are are hurting like they are.

He was mildly critical of his team but only to the point of what was already obvious:

“The better team won, we have had decent possession but we gave the ball away too cheaply especially when in good areas. We didn’t ask questions, maybe it is a time to change – we have to score to win a game.

“It was difficult with the conditions but we have no complaints saying the better team won.”

Whereas many managers might have appeared to show the residual signs of having yelled at players, Bruce did not despite the fact that his comments appeared to single out player errors rather than a failed tactical plan:

“How many times were we caught with the ball? How many times did we overhit a cross? How many times did we miss a pass?

“And at this level, unfortunately it becomes difficult because you’re not going to create chance after chance. I thought we were nowhere near good enough.”

He didn’t overtly complain about injuries, perhaps aware of how idiotic Jose Mourinho has sounded recently, and that’s a credit to him.

But what was more incongruous is where he found positives.

Talking about life after the late substitutions when Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle came on for Almiron and Danny Rose, he claimed:

“We were better. We had a bit of pressure towards the end. I couldn’t fault their effort and commitment, it was there. We invited Palace into the game and we gave them so many opportunities to counter us. That was the disappointing thing. We got into good areas and then gave the ball away.”

What is to celebrate about having more possession than a side defending a 1-0 lead as the game draws too a close?

From that he drew a strange conclusion:

“The one thing they didn’t do was give up, and that’s not a problem. But we have to have more of a threat to win matches in the Premier League.

“Arsenal and Palace away, both are not easy games, but we didn’t cause enough problems in the final third and that’s what we have got to try and address.”

It would be traumatic if not, and even so, the best chance at the end fell to Palace when Zaha was only stopped by a Valentino Lazaro professional foul which rightly saw him red carded.

Indeed, the last 20 minutes were Newcastle’s best spell.

But it may have looked more that way because they were so poor for the first seventy. They made a side bereft of any reason for hope look as confident as Liverpool waiting for a VAR decision on a penalty at the Kop End.

Bruce’s apparent lack of panic may come via news from the physio’s room.

Fabian Schär came though the game unscathed and looked their best player. Dwight Gayle is back.

The influential Jonjo Shelvey looks to be about ready to return. Javier Manquillo and Christian Atsu appear to be approaching availability maybe not for the next game with Burnley, but soon after.

These additional possibilities allow Bruce the chance to shake up his tactics as well as his personnel. Lazaro’s suspension makes that necessary. The returning stars make it possible and the wily northerner still has several aces up his sleeve.

Newcastle were relegated with 37 points in 2015/16. Any other year since 2013, 36 points has been enough.

Their upcoming run of fixtures Burnley (H), Southampton (A), Sheffield United (H), Aston Villa (H), and Bournemouth (A) are not too taxing. Watford and Brighton are also to come.

There are plenty opportunities there to garner the seven or eight points needed to ensure safety.

Surely there’s no manager that knows better where  – and how – to get them.


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