Make no mistake, Newcastle United are in a relegation battle, and judging by their meek surrender to Leicester, they are as good as gone already.
Replacing world-class coach and tactician Rafael Benitez with Steve Bruce always looked like a huge gamble by Mike Ashley, and it doesn’t look likely to pay off.
Much has been made about the relationship between Benitez and Ashley and how it all came to a head with Newcastle neglecting to offer Rafa a new deal at the end of the season. There was talk that Benitez wanted more power over transfers and demanded significant investment into the youth academy and training facilities, all of which were never realistically going to be granted by Ashley who has been open about wanting to sell.
While Benitez was in charge there was still hope for Newcastle United. He was a manager with a proven track record of success who could’ve walked into most managerial roles, yet he saw the potential of the club and thought he could be the man to restore Newcastle to where they should be. The fans worshipped Benitez because he understood the club and had a clear vision in place to take them forward.
The football wasn’t always the prettiest to watch, but rarely did you see a Newcastle team go out and be tactically clueless. Benitez was meticulous in his preparation and made a Championship-level team look like it belonged in the Premier League. Football is about much more than just 90 minutes each weekend. The work on the training pitch can’t be understated.
With Benitez at the helm, Mike Ashley had eased a lot of the pressure directed at him by the fans, who have remained steadfast in their distrust of both him and right-hand man Lee Charnley.
Then it was all taken away.
Newcastle parted company with Benitez and immediately there was takeover talk on the horizon. Rich owners would come in bringing Jose Mourinho as manager and Kylian Mbappe as the star signing.
Instead we ended up still being owned by Mike Ashley and with Steve Bruce in charge. The mood on Tyneside was one of disgust.
Steve Bruce is a lifelong Newcastle fan and there is no doubt he has the best interests of the club at heart. However, simply put, he is just not cut out for a job as big as this. He is a man who has consistently looked out of his depth in the Premier League and had seemingly found his home in the Championship with Sheffield Wednesday.
(Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)
Too many times this season Newcastle have looked tactically clueless, emphasised by instances where players have had to come to the touchline to ask Bruce where they were supposed to be playing. This type of ineptitude was never seen under Benitez and further highlights the gulf in class between the pair.
Newcastle look like a team who have had all of the belief sucked out of them as an attacking force. Of the EPL Newcastle have racorded the equal fewest goals (4), the fewest shots (64), the second-fewest shots on target (19), the second-fewest passes (2258), the kowest possession per game (37.6 per cent) and no goals from set pieces.
Bruce has attacking weapons at his disposal but is yet to even come close to finding a system that accentuates the talents of Miguel Almiron, Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin among others.
Joelinton, a £40 million (A$72.8 million) signing, has to be the loneliest player in the league isolated away from any of his teammates. His role is to hold the ball up and wait for support that is always too slow to arrive. There’s undoubtedly a talented player there, but the system employed by Bruce is doing him no favours at all.
Miguel Almiron has now gone 17 games without registering a goal or an assist. At the time he was a club record signing who had dominated the MLS and was expected to bring an injection of pace and creativity to a very bland team. He’s certainly brought the pace but all too often he tries to do too much and has been dispossessed more than any other player at the club.
If Newcastle are to avoid relegation this season, Bruce needs to find a way to harness the attacking abilities in the squad. There are less talented teams in the league that seem to have a togetherness and belief than compensates for their deficiencies.
Newcastle need to learn to enjoy playing football again.
Fixtures against Manchester United and Chelsea loom on the horizon. As they showed against Spurs, they are capable of an upset, but that fixture seems to have been the exception rather than the rule.
It’s never dull at St James’ Park, and there’s guaranteed to be more twists and turns between now and the end of the season.
Whether Steve Bruce remains in charge to see out the season is up for debate, but based on form, you’d be brave to bet against Newcastle dropping down into the Championship with Steve Bruce at the helm.
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What club would let go of a world-class manager who’s won the Champions League and was willing the club to greater heights? A man loved by the fans with proven success both globally and within the Premier League?