There’s not much to say after Newcastle’s 4-1 defeat to Manchester United yesterday, other than: you felt it was coming. The game was 1-1 until the 86th minute, and it could well have been 2-1 Newcastle, if not for an excellent save by De Gea on Callum Wilson’s toe-poke. Yet even before Bruno Fernandes goal to put Manchester United ahead 2-1, it felt like Newcastle were lucky to still be in the game. Because they were.
Steve Bruce’s Newcastle seems to lack both a clear identity and a coherent philosophy. Ostensibly it’s a more attacking team - that is the benefit, we’re told, gained from sacrificing the defensive stability that marked Rafa Benitez’s teams. Bruce’s Newcastle certainly has better attackers, but they don’t look particularly good at attacking. More than anything, Newcastle looks like a team that doesn’t know what it is. Does Steve Bruce know?
A few weeks ago, Bruce told the Athletic what he envisions for his team: “I’ve always said that, eventually, I would like to go to a back four and have wide players with a bit of pace and hopefully soon we’ll have them… Hopefully, we’ll see a change in style.”
If that’s the level of specificity Bruce can offer, then it’s unsurprising that Newcastle looked as incoherent as they did yesterday, lining up in a 4-1-4-1 with Joelinton and Saint-Maximin on the wings. In every part of the pitch, Newcastle looked like a team of eleven individuals: Wan Bissaka’s goal in the 90th minute an obvious example. When Wan-Bissaka receives the ball, Lewis moves forward to pressure him, Schar is covering nobody, and Rashford moves into the space between the defensive line and Schar. Wan-Bissaka passes to Rashford and then runs past Lewis into space, where Rashford’s easily finds him with a through pass. The move is the most simple iteration of the one-two, and yet it easily bypasses Newcastle’s backline.
The lack of cohesion was also apparent in midfield. Jonjo Shelvey and Jeff Hendrick, playing as the two advanced midfielders in front of Isaac Hayden, consistently pushed high into Manchester United’s half: the logic being, seemingly, that they could apply pressure to United’s double pivot of Fred and Scott McTominay, hardly the league’s most press-resistant duo. That logic would make sense, except that Shelvey and Hendrick didn’t press. Newcastle’s PPDA (passes allowed in the opponent’s half per defensive action - where a lower number indicates higher pressing) was 12.14, double that of United. When Shelvey and Hendrick did press, it was uncoordinated and/or poorly executed, and consistently resulted in United passing around them and leaving Newcastle a midfielder - or two - short on the counter.
In my last review, I highlighted how many of Newcastle’s successful attacks this season have been the products of individual play - usually Saint-Maximin’s individual play - and our entire transition strategy seems to be ‘give Saint-Maximin the ball.’ I predicted that depending on individual play for goals wouldn’t be sustainable, but if that lack of coordination spreads to every aspect of Newcastle’s play, the team’s prospects become much bleaker.
Steve Bruce has often pointed out the fact that he inherited a squad from Benitez that didn’t have the players he needed for his ideal style of play. While that’s true, he did inherit a team that at least knew how to defend together. And while this season he’s had to work with several injured players while building others like Fraser back to full fitness, fans should be able to see in this team, by this point, at least the outline of a philosophy. Instead, we’re seeing the jumbled mess that results from the absence of one.