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Football is played on grass, not paper

Ten games, fourteen points. Above Arsenal, one point behind Manchester City, and eight points clear of the bottom three. On paper, everything is rosy for Newcastle United. On the pitch, things couldn’t be much worse.

When it was announced that live football was returning during the national lockdown, it was a relief for many. Record viewing numbers were achieved for the German Bundesliga – the first of Europe’s five major leagues to return permanently – and there was joy at the announcement that almost every Premier League game would be available to watch. For Newcastle fans, as per usual, the feeling didn’t last long. The prospect of watching Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United once a week transformed from a blissful escape from reality to an unwanted chore at the end of the week.

The start of the season was unprecedented in modern times – Mike Ashley had invested in Premier League proven players, and the squad looked exciting. The thought of Allan Saint-Maximin, Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser, and Miguel Almiron playing in the same side makes the mouth water. Dreaming of open, expansive, attacking football, Toon fans let their imaginations run wild. Maybe this would be the year that we have a comfortable mid-table finish instead of scrapping it out to avoid relegation. The first game of the season fuelled the fire of hope. A dark horse appeared: Jeff Hendrick bursting onto the scene with a lovely goal and an assist on his debut. Callum Wilson started in the best way possible, assuming the role of the mighty ‘Number 9’ without actually wearing the shirt. The 2-0 scoreline could have been even bigger, but nobody was complaining.

Fast forward one week, and the West Ham result was shown up for what it really was: a stroke of luck. One of the worst Newcastle performances of recent times saw us get hammered at home to Brighton: a 3-0 drubbing. The only saving grace for the players was that there were no fans in the ground to hassle them, otherwise, there might have been blood. That game was the first glimpse this season of Steve Bruce’s tactical ineptitude. Refusing to change the system that worked at West Ham, despite Brighton’s completely different style of play, put a spotlight on Steve Bruce. Bruce’s best tactical input on the Brighton game? Kick Tariq Lamptey.

Steve Bruce has actually said that he doesn’t know what his best side is. He’s been the manager of Newcastle United for a season and a half, and yet he still can’t put a cohesive squad together. There’s no identity, there are no ideas, there’s no motivation. Contrastingly, Graham Potter has been at Brighton for the same length of time. When he took over, Brighton finished two points outside the relegation zone. His first season in charge, Brighton finished in 15th place with 41 points, seven points clear of relegation – their joint highest ever finish in the Premier League. This season, they have drawn with Liverpool, beaten an in-form Aston Villa, and pushed Manchester United, Chelsea, and Tottenham right until the final whistle. All because they have a manager who knows how he wants his team to play and can motivate his players to play that way. Oh, and also, Steve Bruce has managed 11 teams over 22 years, Brighton are only Potter’s 3rd club, and he’s only managed for 9 years. Who said experience matters? Just in case you were wondering about investment, Brighton have spent around £63m during Potter’s tenure, and Newcastle have spent around £68 under Bruce, including profit from outgoing sales.

On paper, Newcastle’s squad is infinitely more talented and experienced that the Brighton team. Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser, Matt Ritchie, Jonjo Shelvey, Federico Fernadez, all quality players with plenty of experience. Does that matter? No, because when a team has a solid idea of how they want to play, they will try, and try again, until they succeed. There’s no inkling of that at Newcastle United. And it kills me to say that I want to be like Brighton – how far have we fallen as a club to aspire to be like Brighton, who’s highest Premier League finish is 15th?

There’s always the urge to compare Rafa Benitez to Steve Bruce, so here’s my take on it. Instead of looking at their records elsewhere, I’d focus on the ideology from their time at the club. Under Rafa Benitez in the Premier League, Newcastle United were intentionally compact, difficult to break down, and tried to keep the score at both ends as low as possible. They had an identity: a defensive team that frustrated the opposition and played off its front three, including a big target man. Under Steve Bruce, Newcastle United are trapped in their own half, struggle for possession, and go into every single game without a strategy. The only viable strategy I’ve seen Bruce consistently employ is: ‘chuck big Andy Carroll up top for 15 minutes’.

Take the most recent win against Crystal Palace, for example. For 85 minutes, we looked devoid of ideas, the game could’ve swung either way, the only reason it didn’t go in Palace’s favour is because they lacked individual quality. It was lucky that Andy Carroll was injured, otherwise, I would’ve put my house on Bruce bringing him off the bench to replace one of the eventual goal-scorers, changing the outcome of the game entirely. Outsiders will see a 2-0 win away at Palace and an undisputed triumph, and not the 85 minutes of non-league level that it actually was. Actually, that’s harsh on non-league. Under Rafa, if we lost, we went down fighting and with dignity, only to bounce back next week. Under Bruce, we go down arguing amongst ourselves and pointing fingers left, right, and centre.

Newcastle supporters don’t ask for much, in reality. They want a team that is willing to put their bodies on the line for the shirt and to play some nice football once in a while. They don’t want Champion’s League football, or even Europa League, as some pundits claim. Those pundits who don’t watch Newcastle United week in, week out, see our stats on paper and think everything is rosy. What they don’t see is the pure capitulation against Brighton, Chelsea, and Southampton. They don’t see the average possession of 47%. They don’t see that Newcastle have conceded 158 shots in just 10 games. They don’t see that Steve Bruce’s side have only had 28 shots on target all season. They just see ten games, fourteen points, and expect that to be enough. They see the game on paper, but not the game on grass.



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