Before this past weekend, Newcastle had gone a long time without scoring from set pieces. While struggles in dead ball situations precede Bruce’s tenure, they are in fact emblematic of the troubles him and his side have endured early on.
There has been too many instances where Newcastle players do not know where they are supposed to be on set pieces and, on a larger scale, on the pitch. Other times, set pieces have been well-coordinated yet fruitless due to poor planning overall. Likewise, the players on the pitch sometimes look as if they have effectively carried out Bruce’s tactics, but in these instances, the side still looks no closer to winning the game because of how lackluster these tactics were to start with.
Newcastle perfectly executing two set pieces against West Ham and scoring from a direct free kick was a glimmer of hope to all the fans. Ask an overly optimistic Newcastle fan what this means for Newcastle’s season, and they might look at this set piece analogy and senselessly come to the conclusion that the West Ham victory marks a change in fortune for the Newcastle side.
As it turns out, this conclusion could very well hold true, but it does not have to be baseless. Although Newcastle was facing a West Ham side on a poor run of form, the lads in black and white offered a glimpse into what direction Steve Bruce could take this team, and surprisingly, it does not look especially dreary.
This season has already proven to be a roller-coaster for Newcastle fans with the side turning in poor performances against relegation rivals and impassioned displays against struggling top dogs. Inconsistency in football is a weird concept. Every fan would love for their team to do well consistently, but that’s rarely the case. And while most would find it silly to admit, watching your team put in consistent performances is boring in a way. Ask Manchester City fans. They have got one of the best managers and squads in Europe and still struggle to sell out games.
Anyways, the point to be taken away from that tangent is that Newcastle is still plagued by inconsistency, and nothing with Newcastle or Steve Bruce is a given. Despite this, Bruce and Newcastle look as if they might have finally turned the corner. If Bruce proceeds logically, Newcastle’s fortunes do not have to end at Olympic Stadium against a poor West Ham side.
After weeks of seeing Newcastle’s record signing chase desperate long balls while pitted against unoccupied back-lines, Joelinton was finally involved. His effort and performance levels have not changed one bit from those desperate times to last week’s victory. The main difference is that Bruce has finally forged a functional identity for this team. This win does much more for Newcastle’s identity than the other two victories this season.
Winning against the big boys in the Premier League is not easy, but setting the team up tactics-wise is easy. Not so easy that anyone could do it, but that challenge pales in the face of setting up a team against a side that you are evenly matched with.
Against the big teams in the PL, Newcastle simply has to do what every underdog in football does. Park the bus and hope to catch the opposition on the break. If you bag a goal or two, then you simply park the bus the rest of the game. That’s how Bruce pulled of the win against Tottenham and then United. These are good solid wins for the boys of course, but they do not exactly present any dilemmas tactics-wise. Bruce does deserve credit for shifting to a 5-4-1 in that Tottenham match, but fans had been crying out in the weeks that preceded the match.
The real point to be made here is that the victory against West Ham was Bruce’s first true victory at Newcastle. Execution on set pieces certainly helped Newcastle grab the goals, but they looked the far more threatening side throughout the match. High pressing and coordinated sprints from Newcastle’s wing-backs had a beautiful trickle effect. As Willems and Yedlin pushed forward, Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron were able to make diagonal runs and take up threatening positions. And that is exactly what Newcastle’s attack needs.
Against West Ham, Bruce finally figured out the best way to get the ball at the feet of his most threatening players in positions where they could create havoc. In essence, pushing the wing backs a bit forward, such that Newcastle essentially adopted a fluid 5-4-1 in defense and 3-4-3 in attack instead of a fixed 5-4-1, allowed Newcastle’s attackers to truly thrive.
Though Newcastle failed to score directly from open play, it was encouraging to see Newcastle’s attack look so potent. For the first time this season, the trio upfront looked as menacing as the trio that Rafael Benitez had at his disposal. This is not too surprising, since a fluid 5-4-1/3-4-3 is a reversion to how Rafa set up the side. Regardless, Steve Bruce does deserve credit for making the changes necessary to finally get the best out of his attackers. Additionally, there are still some subtle differences in Bruce’s tactics, such as his preference for a high press, which has looked better in recent weeks.
Newcastle’s match against Bournemouth will be an opportunity for Bruce to further demonstrate his competency. His side’s display against West Ham was great, but he needs to ensure that they can keep it up. As much as we secretly are entertained by inconsistency, it is safe to say that the whole fanbase would much more prefer a spell of solid performances filled with growth and confidence.
That performance from Newcastle’s attacking players does not have to be the best that it gets. They are all young and possess potential; it is somewhat up to Bruce to ensure that they fulfill it.