Steve Bruce at Newcastle: Football failing to inspire club's supporters

Newcastle supporters saw it coming a mile off. This was Sheffield United, without a win this season, without a win for six months. A team not only devoid of confidence but already down in the eyes of many. Of course they were going to get the better of Steve Bruce’s side.

What might have shocked even the Newcastle manager’s more fervent critics was the apparent commitment to playing the opposition back into form. They were the architects, foremen, builders and advertisers of their own downfall as they lost 1-0 at Bramall Lane.

Bruce might point to Ryan Fraser’s red card at the end of the first half and argue that this was the pivotal moment in the match but the problems were evident well before that.

It was there in the cautious selection that saw Newcastle go with five at the back. It had almost worked in stifling Arsenal on Saturday but it spoke to a poverty of ambition here, sending the message that keeping it tight was the best bet even against the bottom club.

In setting the bar so low, Newcastle ducked under it. The lacklustre opening left them on the back foot as they allowed Sheffield United to enjoy the bulk of possession in the first 15 minutes when 40 per cent of the action took place around Newcastle’s own penalty box.


A passing accuracy of 68 per cent could only be partially explained by the sending off. It has been an issue all season with a 75 per cent pass completion rate putting them among the bottom three in the Premier League. This is not a team endeavouring to play positive football.

Bruce’s line about this being a work in progress, an attempt to buy time and inspire hope, has long since become a punchline. Eight games without a win tells its own tale. Progress? Even treading water is becoming a real struggle for this Newcastle side.

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Being out of both cups adds to the anger and frustration, but it is the possibility that Bruce is out of luck that could be his biggest problem. That is not to excuse the form but to explain that, for a long time, Newcastle’s results were actually better than their performances.

Only Norwich had an inferior net expected-goals total last season – and not by much. The Newcastle supporters were not moaning without cause, they were just the first to see it. The decay long evident in their style of play is now manifesting itself in their results.

Clues were there last season

It is worth revisiting some of the numbers from last season that laid bare the team’s issues. Newcastle pressed less than any other team and allowed their opponents to progress further up the pitch when in possession than anyone else. It meant they had to start their own attacks furthest away from the opposition goal. Everything was a struggle.

Perhaps the most revealing contrast with the other 19 teams in the competition was the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive action. Newcastle allowed more – far more – than anyone else. It sums up the inertia, the negativity, when out of possession.

This was not a template from which to build something more entertaining. These were underlying numbers that revealed the underlying problems at Newcastle. This was a club in need of a drastic change in direction if it were to avoid just this sort of run of results.

Problem has not been solved

The club’s transfer business in the summer was encouraging enough with a couple of free-transfer arrivals who looked to represent bargains and a promising full-back in Jamal Lewis.

The arrival of Callum Wilson was much needed and the England international has delivered with eight goals in 15 Premier League appearances, a triumph considering the service.

But the changes in personnel have not triggered a change in approach.

Newcastle still allow more opposition passes per defensive action than any other side. They rank bottom for high turnovers and shot-ending high turnovers. Pressing remains absent.

Indeed, the attacking play has regressed in some respects. Newcastle are among the bottom three for sequences of 10 or more passes with only Burnley having fewer extended spells of possession that end in either a shot or a touch in the box.

This, quite literally, is not progress.

As for the net expected-goals tally, that suggests that Newcastle are, once again, among the worst three teams in the Premier League, with only West Brom significantly inferior.

These statistics might not resonate with everyone but they offer some insight because they hint at how it must feel, regardless of the result, to watch Bruce’s Newcastle. Very few chances created, lots of chances conceded. It can grind you down – supporters and players.

In the absence of a takeover, it was always going to be difficult to improve the mood. But in opting not to pursue a more optimistic brand of football, those in charge at Newcastle cannot claim to be surprised if their turgid approach fails to inspire.

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