The Great Debate: Should Newcastle stick or twist with Steve Bruce?

Jack Kitson by Jack Kitson / 19 January 2021, 12:13

Steve Bruce has been installed as the new favourite to follow in the footsteps of Slaven Bilic and become the second victim of the Premier League Sack Race.

The Toon manager has been fighting the thrashing waves of pressure ever since he was appointed as Rafa Benitez’s replacement in the summer of 2019, but after a nine game winless run in all competitions: Is it time for Newcastle to take a new direction by bringing in a dynamic manager with fresh ideas? 

Or, is criticism of the experienced manager simply too harsh?

We look at whether Newcastle should Stick or Twist...

TWIST

We’ll start with the negatives...

1) Envious Glances

Newcastle fans will be forgiven for casting envious glances in the direction of Leicester City, Southampton and Aston Villa, who are managed by Brendan Rodgers, Ralph Hasenhuttl and Dean Smith.

Each manager has come under pressure at various points of their respective tenures, yet each manager has shown courage, artistry and emotional intelligence to make a mockery of any critics who doubted them. They are now reaping the rewards with Rodgers leading a title charge at Leicester, while Hasenhuttl and Smith are mounting an assault on the top-six.

The aforementioned three clubs have each shown buckets of ambition as they climb an upward trajectory under the stewardship of a trio of progressive managers who have each forged their own style, which has only come to magnify Newcastle’s pusillanimity under Bruce. 

Even when the 60-year-old did adopt a more positive approach against Arsenal - a four man defence and three strikers on the pitch - his side slumped to a 3-0 defeat, mustered only one shot on target and had just 34% possession.

Newcastle weren’t exactly enthralling prior to Bruce’s appointment, yet beforehand the fans fully backed a manager who not only offered hope of a brighter future but could back it up with a history of success at the highest level.

2) Faltering form

Newcastle are without a win in nine matches in all competitions. During this rotten run they’ve been knocked out of two cup competitions - meaning their hunt for a first domestic cup since 1955 goes on - dropped to 15th in the table, and have found the back of the net just once in their last 690 minutes of football.

Newcastle still have a seven point cushion above the relegation zone, while they are only three points behind Wolves with a game in hand. However, their recent run suggests there’s little evidence that they can suddenly burst out of this period of stagnation. 

The elusive Mike Ashley has appeared to be fully supportive of Bruce so far, but at the back of his mind he’ll recall the 2009 and 2019 seasons when he made a managerial change too late, and Newcastle suffered relegation on both occasions. He won’t want to make the same mistake yet again.

While the football has never been thrilling, Bruce’s defensive organisation and man management skills had been his great strength; making the pragmatic Toon a tough team to beat. 

Yet the Liverpool point aside, his team have looked increasingly vulnerable and alarmingly short of confidence in all areas of the pitch, whereas star striker Callum Wilson has been starved of quality service.

A combination of the pressure, poor results, laboured performances and a severe lack of goals must be incredibly draining psychologically for both Bruce and his troops.

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Steve Bruce is now the new bookies' favourite for the chop

3) Fans Furore

The fans want a sense of progress and promise, plus the perfectly reasonable request of enjoying the football that their side play.

Even Bruce’s staunchest supporters will admit they are seeing none of the above at the moment.

Still, Bruce appears to be in the rare position of lacking support from the overwhelmingly vast majority of fans, yet simultaneously holding the complete support of the club’s hierarchy.

There is a steely implacability to Bruce, which can be both his great strength and downfall. He’s resilient, thick-skinned and a fighter. However, even his strong mental toughness will have been chipped away by the constant criticism directed at home from his fellow Geordies. 

But whatever you make of his methods, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel a shred of sympathy for him, afterall he’s always come across as both affable and honest. 

But there must come a point in time - perhaps now? - where he will question whether the barrage of abuse is worth it.

STICK

1) Lack of Replacements

While many fans have come to the severe conclusion that they’d rather have anyone other than Bruce in charge at the moment, that’s probably not entirely true.

Mark Hughes’ sudden declaration that he’s ready to return to management saw him crop up at 4/1 in the next Newcastle manager market. Going by the response on Twitter, this would be a disastrous outcome.

The betting inevitably features former Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez - much loved on Tyneside - however, unless the club is taken over there’s simply no way the current Dalian Yifang incumbent would come back right now.

Eddie Howe is still free and available. He’s currently odds-on to replace Neil Lennon at Celtic, while he’s been touted as a possible successor to Roy Hodgson at Crystal Palace.

Howe fits the mould of a young yet experienced, dynamic manager who employs attractive football, yet critics would point to the relegation he suffered last season.

Steve Cooper is doing cracking things at Championship promotion contenders Swansea, however he’s only half-way through his second full season in senior management. While he deserves huge praise for his work to date, it could be viewed as a risk at this moment in time. He’s also obviously employed so it’s difficult to see Newcastle stumping up the compensation for his services, while simultaneously paying a reported payout of £1.5million to Bruce.

Elsewhere, Max Allegri is a pipe dream in the current circumstances, former Toon player Joey Barton performed admirably at Fleetwood but that was in a full two divisions below, whereas Marco Silva is unlikely to capture the imagination of many fans.

2) Is he actually doing that badly?

We don’t want to get too sucked into the Benitez vs Bruce comparisons debate as this has been exhausted, however it is worth noting that there was a point during the 2017/18 in which the Spaniard picked up one point from a possible 27, then at the start of the following campaign his side failed to win any of their opening 11 games in all competitions. 

Meanwhile, Bruce has picked up 22 and 19 points at the current stage in each of his two seasons, while Benitez had 15 and 16 points at the same stage.

There’s no sugar coating Newcastle’s current rut, but winless runs happen every now and again. The manager is always the scapegoat in these scenarios. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is.

Bruce has two more league wins this season than Graham Potter, however the latter is far more likely to be applauded than pummelled by the media. To many, Leeds are enjoying a great season yet Marcelo Bielsa’s men are only a few points ahead of Newcastle.

Just over a year ago Hasenhuttl seemed lost on the Solent after a catastrophic sequence of results including the infamous 9-0 loss against Leicester, while Smith appeared on the cusp of the chop at Aston Villa, before he inspired a push for survival. As mentioned earlier, both managers are now thriving.

However, there’s no denying that in the above examples each manager has their own, entertaining style of play which also produces points. Bruce’s own way of playing the game will always be criticised, no matter what happens.

Meanwhile, speaking on Monday Night Football, Gary Neville believes it’s a cultural problem at the club:

“The unhappiness towards this manager is embedded from the history, rather than who he is or the job that he’s doing. If I was a Newcastle fan, I’d be unhappy now.

“I’d be unhappy under Rafa Benitez, I’d be unhappy under Steve McClaren and the previous three managers before that. It’s been appalling for the past 10 or 12 years.”

3) Absence of a Saint

“No matter who you are, whether you're Liverpool and you're missing [Virgil] van Dijk, or if you're missing arguably your most creative player at the top end of the pitch, then of course you're going to miss him. It's as simple as that." 

Bruce is of course referring to Allan Saint Maximin, who has missed the last nine league games due to injuries and Covid. Newcastle have desperately missed the midfielder’s panache, sparkle, and delightful unpredictability.

He’s previously spoken highly of Bruce, and now he’s back in training, hopefully he’s not too far away from a return. While it’s impossible to tell how he’ll be after his lay-off, if he manages to rediscover his form then things are suddenly a bit more optimistic at Newcastle. It’s a big if of course.

Conclusion

While Bruce has done a reasonable job amidst a backdrop of disapproval, the fans thirst for a manager who employs an attractive and entertaining brand of football is completely understandable. However, they may have to wait a little longer for their requests to materialise.

As Micah Richards put it: “Steve Bruce is a lovely bloke but maybe it is time for him to change - but maybe he can't change it.”

Over the course of the last 18 months hundreds-of-thousands of words have been written and spoken about his future at Newcastle.

Yet, it doesn’t seem to matter how much the fans fume, players underperform or wins desert the club, so long as Mike Ashley is at the helm Bruce appears safe.

If a takeover ever actually occurs then it’s a completely different narrative, but for the time being ‘new cash happy owners’ promising ‘elite players and managers’ are merely restricted to paper talk.

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Odds Correct as of 2021-02-24 20:28:00
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