In principle, Steve Bruce’s 3-5-2 makes sense; it theoretically offers Newcastle versatility in attack as the wing backs can bomb forward and deliver crosses. At the same time, the backline remains fully staffed as there are always at least three defenders available to deal with opposition attacks.
An important added benefit of this setup is that it allows Steve Bruce to play Shelvey, Longstaff, and Hayden all at once. By pairing Longstaff and Hayden with Shelvey, Shelvey’s deficiencies on defense are masked by his willing partners, and thus, he is able to focus more on spraying passes forward to kick-start attacks.
All of this should mean that Newcastle has a fluid attack to supplement their already solid defense. However, this current setup is bound to fail for two reasons:
1) There is not enough true attackers on the pitch at one time.
2) It places too much attacking responsibility on the wing-backs and therefore, renders them ineffective.
In reality, these two problems go hand-in-hand. Before Steve Bruce shifted to a 3-4-3 towards the end of the game, Newcastle looked rather light in attack. The only two players in that lineup that were capable of having a go at the Arsenal back-line were Joelinton and Almiron. As these two pushed forward, they generally had minimal or lackluster support.
The reality is that none of the players in the central-midfield trio are capable of playing the role of a third attacker. Theoretically, this third attacker would be asked to make runs or more likely, occupy the space left by Almiron and/or Joelinton’s runs. While Longstaff, Shelvey, and Hayden are great central midfielders, none of them are gifted attackers in the literal sense. Most of their attacking contributions consist of making an important pass leading up to the goal or recycling possession so that the attack can restart.
So the next obvious choice for the extra attackers are the wing-backs, which were Ritchie and Manquillo for much of the Arsenal game. The problem that arises here is that Joelinton and Almiron play rather centrally in the current setup. As a result, Arsenal’s fullbacks were mostly ready and unoccupied when Ritchie and Manquillo would bomb forward. This fundamental problem essentially negates the whole purpose of wing-backs in this system.
In contrast, Rafa’s 3-4-3 allowed the wing-backs, especially Matt Ritchie, to thrive down the wing, because the wide forwards would occupy the opposition’s fullbacks. In doing so, Matt Ritchie would find himself with time and space aplenty to deliver crosses on the wing after making overlapping runs.
In the current system, Matt Ritchie and Manquillo are not the second wave of wing attackers; instead, they are the first. So while Rafa’s system afforded his wing-backs the opportunity to deliver crosses unencumbered by the opposition’s defense, Steve Bruce’s system makes them the first point of attack down the wings. Since Matt Ritchie and Javier Manquillo are rather inept at taking on defenders, they are essentially set up to fail.
To compound matters further, in this system, Ritchie and Manquillo base positions are far away from the opposition’s goal. Essentially, they have to travel a farther distance to enter the region of the pitch where they can cross the ball, all while serving as the main threat to opposition full-backs.
With the inefficiencies of the current system out in the open, it is time to take a look at the two most reasonable fixes:
The first solution is essentially a reversion to Rafa’s preferred setup. With this formation, Joelinton would spearhead the forward trio with the help of Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron. The back three would essentially remain untouched, and wing-backs would be utilized in a much more friendly and efficient manner. Bombing down the wing behind Allan Saint-Maximin and Almiron, both of which are handfuls to opposition defenses, would allow the wing-backs to be maximally effective.
The only downside to this setup is that the midfield trio of Longstaff, Hayden, and Shelvey would have to be broken up. The defensively-sound partnership of Longstaff and Hayden in this type of setup is what kept Shelvey out of the squad last season after he returned from injury, and it would not be a surprise if it kept him out this time around as well.
Picking Shelvey as part of a central midfield duo leaves Newcastle at the mercy of Shelvey’s defensive work-rate, which has fluctuated for quite some time. Therefore, the most probable outcome of the 3-4-3 setup would be Newcastle leaving its most lethal passer on the bench. However, this dilemma of whether or not to include Shelvey hinges on his willingness to roll up his sleeves and commit to defensive work. If he was to emulate his 2017-2018 defensive work-rate, he could make the grade as part of a central midfield duo.
The more favored alternative (4-3-3) sees Newcastle drop one of its central defenders in favor of keeping the midfield trio intact. This setup would likely result in the third defender out of Lascelles-Schar-(Dummett/Fernandez) being benched. If the third defender was Lejeune, then the 4-3-3 setup looks much less desirable. However, with the Frenchman currently recovering from another ACL injury, Steve Bruce does not have to think about that yet.
While this may seemingly may leave Newcastle a little light in defense, Isaac Hayden would probably serve as the deep-lying central midfielder out of the trio. As we all know, Isaac Hayden is a capable defender, and the back-line would keep its solidity with him and Longstaff functioning as added protection.
Furthermore, such a setup would see Steve Bruce’s favorite Matt Ritchie fully embrace the full-back role. Ritchie is a capable defender with a sweet left-footed cross, so he would be fine in this capacity. Like in the 3-4-3, he would be able afforded more time and space on the wing to deliver crosses.
Ultimately, a 4-3-3 system would allow Newcastle to incorporate its most important players while giving its full-backs the best opportunity to make an impact on the wings. Newcastle’s attack would be as potent as ever, and its defense, with the help of the midfield trio, would not be sacrificed.
Either of these two alternatives would vastly improve Newcastle’s attack without hindering its defense. Steve Bruce, if you are reading this, make it happen.