Newcastle supporters saw him arrive a mile away. It was Sheffield United, winless this season, winless for six months. A team not only lacking in confidence but already depressed in the eyes of many. Of course, they were going to take over Steve Bruce’s side.
What might have shocked even the most staunch critics of the Newcastle manager was the apparent commitment to get the opposition back in shape. They were the architects, foremen, builders and heralds of their own downfall in losing 1-0 at Bramall Lane.
Bruce could point Ryan Fraser’s red card at the end of the first half and say it was the crux of the game, but the issues were evident long before that.
It was there in the cautious selection which saw Newcastle leave with five at the back. It had almost worked to stifle Arsenal on Saturday, but it spoke of a poverty of ambition here, sending the message that keeping it tight was the best bet, even against the bottom club.
By setting the bar so low, Newcastle bowed underneath. The lackluster opening left them on the back foot as they allowed Sheffield United to enjoy most of the possession in the opening 15 minutes when 40% of the action revolved around the Newcastle penalty bench .
68% pass accuracy could only be partially explained by the shipment. This has been a problem all season with a 75% success rate placing them in the bottom three in the Premier League. This is not a team that strives to play positive football.
Bruce’s line that this is a work in progress, an attempt to buy time and inspire hope, has long since become a punchline. Eight games without a win tell their own story. Progress? Even walking on water is becoming a real struggle for this side of Newcastle.
Being out of both cups adds to anger and frustration, but it is the possibility that Bruce is unlucky that could be his biggest problem. This is not to excuse form but to explain that for a long time Newcastle’s results were actually better than their performances.
Only Norwich had a lower net goal tally last season – and not by much. Newcastle supporters weren’t moaning for no reason, they were just the first to see it. The decline long evident in their style of play is now evident in their results.
The clues were there last season
It’s worth revisiting some of the numbers from last season that laid bare the squad’s problems. Newcastle were less rushing than any other team and allowed their opponents to advance higher up the pitch when in possession than anyone else. This meant that they had to launch their own attacks farthest from the opposition goal. It was all a struggle.
Perhaps the most telling contrast to the other 19 teams in the competition was the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive action. Newcastle have allowed more – much more – than anyone else. It sums up the inertia, the negativity, when it is out of possession.
It was not a blueprint from which to build something more entertaining. These underlying numbers revealed the underlying problems at Newcastle. It was a club that needed a radical change of direction if they were to avoid these kinds of results.
The problem has not been resolved
The club’s transfer activity this summer was encouraging enough with a few free transfer arrivals appearing to be good deals and a promising full-back for Jamal Lewis.
The arrival of Callum Wilson was much needed and the England international has scored eight goals in 15 Premier League appearances, a triumph given the service.
But the personnel changes did not lead to a change in approach.
Newcastle still allow more opposing passes per defensive action than any other side. They rank last for high spin rates and high spin rates that end the race. The pressing remains absent.
Indeed, the offensive game has regressed in some respects. Newcastle are in the bottom three for streaks of 10 or more assists, with only Burnley having fewer extended possession spells that end in a shot or contact in the box.
This, literally, is not progress.
As for the net tally of expected goals, this suggests that Newcastle are, once again, among the three worst teams in the Premier League, with only West Brom significantly lower.
These stats may not resonate with everyone, but they offer insight as they suggest what it must be like, regardless of the outcome, to watch Bruce’s Newcastle. Very few chances created, a lot of chances conceded. It can weaken you – supporters and players.
In the absence of a revival, it would still be difficult to improve the mood. But by choosing not to pursue a more optimistic brand of football, Newcastle officials cannot claim to be surprised if their turgid approach fails to inspire.