Steve Bruce has some good excuses at his disposal this season, what with COVID hitting his Newcastle United side hard and long, but there’s nothing that can rationalize Newcastle United’s performance Tuesday as the Magpies fell to the previously-winless Blades 1-0 on Tuesday at Bramall lane.
Facing a team who entered with a league-worst eight goals scored and third-worst 29 conceded, Bruce packed the back and played one forward, his tactics against a woeful attacking and defending side allowing Blades to more than double their season point total, as Sheffield United laid claim to its second-best attacking performance of the Premier League season.
Blades have only produced more xG (2.01) once this season, versus West Brom. They had scored one goal in their last four matches and averaged 7.25 shots per game.
They had 10 by halftime on Tuesday.
Bruce took responsibility for the loss but also lashed out at VAR after the Blades struck through a penalty and goal scorer Billy Sharp was not sent off for a poor challenge.
But the key is that a team with Newcastle’s talent might not be a top four contender, but it shouldn’t be losing to Sheffield United and drawing Fulham and West Brom while being second-best in all three outings.
Bruce couldn’t ignore it.
“First half was arguably as bad as we’ve played in a long time,” Bruce said. “We didn’t give ourselves a chance going forward and we didn’t create.”
This is not a surprise. Bruce had five at the back including a center back at left wing back.
Newcastle is a relegation candidate without changes
There was also the confusion that comes with Bruce playing five across the back but having the left back be Paul Dummett, not exactly a pace merchant.
Sides who line up that way and cede possession almost need to mimic Sean Dyche at Burnley and play very aggressive: either lump the ball to big men up top or send speedy forwards zipping after the ball.
Newcastle seems to keep playing out of the back, giving the ball away in its own half, and — when Jonjo Shelvey or Fabian Schar is out — lumping loooooong passes that demand too much of the forwards too often.
Bruce kept big men Andy Carroll and Joelinton on the bench as well as Miguel Almiron, opting to play Callum Wilson alone up top with very little pace around him. That became almost zero pace once Ryan Fraser took two bad yellow cards in a half-dozen minutes.
Disturbing numbers and an exasperated goalkeeper
Newcastle goalkeeper Karl Darlow has saved the Magpies several times this season and nearly did It get again on Tuesday.
He sounds exasperated.
“There can be no excuses,” Darlow said. “We need to come here and do the business. Talk is cheap, we need to show more on the pitch that the fans can be proud of. It’s back to the drawing board. We needed to put more pressure on, they were fighting for their lives. We haven’t delivered what we said in the changing room, on the training pitch. We didn’t get hold of the ball.”
Only West Brom’s Sam Johnstone is averaging more saves-per-game than Darlow, who is tied with Leeds’ Illan Meslier for second. He’s been forced into making the most clearances in the league, too.
Center back Federico Fernandez is leading the Premier League in clearances (89) and blocked shots (21) blocked shots.
Conversely, Newcastle is 19th in shot attempts, 20th in possession, 18th in passing, 19th in shots conceded, 18th in expected goals for, 15th in expected goals conceded, and 18th in expected points.
Newcastle has taken 100 less shots than their opponents in open play (195-95) and has only one player, Callum Wilson, with an expected goal total higher than 1.15. That’s for the whole season, not one game.
When playing five at the back — as they were Tuesday — the Magpies are being out-attempted 117-56. In a 4-4-2, where they are at their best, the Magpies are being outshot 96-79 but outperforming their opponents in xG.
Nine of their 18 goals have come after the 76th but so have 10 of their conceded goals. Newcastle is not out-scoring their opponent in any 15-minute segment of game play and continues to be dreadful without Allan Saint-Maximin.
Of qualified players making more than four appearances, Newcastle counts its players in the following spots in WhoScored’s overall rating.
51-100: Karl Darlow (61), Allan Saint-Maximin (79).
101-200: Ciaran Clark (103), Callum Wilson (106), Joelinton (114), Jonjo Shelvey (119).
201-300: Jeff Hendrick (207), Jacob Murphy (211), Jamaal Lascelles (221), Federico Fernandez (224), Isaac Hayden (231), Miguel Almiron (255), Andy Carroll (263), Matt Ritchie (273), Fabian Schar (278), Javier Manquillo (300).
301+: Jamal Lewis (302), DeAndre Yedlin (304), Sean Longstaff (312), Ryan Fraser (331).
That’s six of the top 200 performers in the Premier League. Not good.
The Saint-Max effect
Allan Saint-Maximin is one of the most electric players in the Premier League, and the long-term effects of COVID-19 he’s experiencing are terrifying.
But his absence from the field is haunting the team, especially as Bruce refuses to use the closest thing he has to ASM in Miguel Almiron.
This season, Newcastle is 3W-1D-3L when Saint-Maximin goes more than 33 minutes and 2W–3D-5L when he doesn’t.
They’ve drawn Wolves and beaten both Everton and West Ham with him, the caliber of teams Newcastle supporters expect to land amongst in any given season.
They’ve lost to Leeds, Sheffield United, and Brighton without him.
Last season, they went on a 5W-2D-2L run when he started nine-straight Premier League games, then promptly went 1W-1D-4L when he hurt his hamstring. He returned and scored when they beat Chelsea.
Get well soon.
How do they fix this?
The Magpies seem destined to fall short of their potential and potentially even dip into the Championship if they cannot address their errors.
Newcastle is not just undermanned in the midfield, it doesn’t have a cogent plan in the middle of the park. Jonjo Shelvey is a passing wizard, Isaac Hayden a tireless worker, and Matty Longstaff a promising prospect but so much is missing.
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It seems like Bruce is incapable of organizing this group in a way that functions well and Shelvey’s absence coupled with Allan Saint-Maximin’s long COVID-19 fight and the manager’s inability to use Miguel Almiron in his best position are combining to create chaos.
Is there a way to fix Newcastle without cutting ties with Bruce, who seems a lovely man but often doesn’t pick the right game plan and rarely makes meaningful in-game changes?
Well, a dominant box-to-box central midfielder has been missing for ages but transfers do not seem likely. If one does not arrive, he could and should try clogging the midfield. If he insists on Wilson as a lone striker, then a 4-5-1 over a 5-4-1 is better.
Or at least go the Leeds route and go down swinging, because their six-game winless run has handed a point to Fulham, three to Leeds, and another three to Blades.
Five teams are below Newcastle. There’s little reason to fear Blades or West Brom, but Brighton is five points back and significantly better in talent and preparation than the Magpies. Burnley and Fulham aren’t too far back and Newcastle next faces Arsenal, Leeds, and Everton.
Don’t be surprised if they open February with few new faces and the bottom three in sight when Crystal Palace visits St. James’ Park.