Considering the injuries, it’s hard to be upset with a point away at Wolves and hard to argue that that point was undeserved. Sure, we were lucky that Jacob Murphy scored a stunning free kick to level the game, but Wolves were lucky that Jimenez scored an equally stunning volley from outside the penalty area to go ahead 1-0.
There’s arguably more positives to take from the performance today than there have been from any game - barring possibly West Ham - this season. Given the injury crisis that forced Bruce to play both Fraser and Almirón at central mid, as well as Murphy at right wing-back, it would be unreasonable to expect a masterclass, and yet the team looked more disciplined than they have with players in their preferred positions.
To start, the defence looked both more organized and more comfortable with five at the back. Almirón also excelled in an unfamiliar position, making seven tackles - more than both of Wolves’ central midfielders, Dendoncker and Neves, and more than Shelvey has made all season - and completing three dribbles. Newcastle desperately need someone who can carry the ball forward in central midfield, and, with the right balance, it could be worth trying Almirón in that deeper position moving forward.
Predictably Newcastle weren’t enthralling in attack, but it has to be acknowledged that Wolves are a much better team than even a fully-fit Newcastle.The back five forced Wolves’ wingers central and limited the danger of overlaps from their wingbacks. Given Hayden’s absence and Lewis’ defensive limitations, a Newcastle back four would have created exactly the sort of game that Wolves wanted.
Still, many will feel dismayed watching yet another uninspiring performance, and that’s the simple conundrum facing Newcastle fans at the moment. Most Newcastle fans don’t like Steve Bruce or the football he plays, and so many view results like today - one point taken from an unimpressive performance- as unduly vindicating Bruce. The logic being; if Bruce keeps getting points from performances that don’t warrant points, Ashley will never realize that Bruce isn’t up to par, and Bruce will stick around, and Newcastle will continue to play unappealing, uninspired football. We’re stuck between wanting the team to do well and wanting Bruce to be found out sooner rather than later.
It’s difficult not to feel sympathetic toward that argument, but it assumes that if the results matched the performances - if we were guaranteed relegation - that Ashley would step in, sack Bruce, and plug the hole before it’s too late. Where’s the evidence for that?
Take 2015-16, when the results did match the performances. Steve McLaren had Newcastle sitting on 24 points after 28 games, in 19th place, and the team had spent 70% of the season in the relegation zone. It had been clear from the beginning - much clearer than it is with Bruce anyway - that the team’s form was unsustainable yet McLaren remained Newcastle’s manager until March 11, with ten games left to play.
By all accounts, Mike Ashley likes Steve Bruce. This past summer, in Bruce’s words, Ashley “flexed his muscles” to secure the signings that Bruce personally requested: seemingly the first time Ashley has ever gone out of his way to back a manager in the transfer market. In buying Callum Wilson for 20 million pounds, Ashley even contradicted the policy of buying young players with potentially high resale values that has governed Newcastle’s transfer business for the last decade.
The story of Mike Ashley’s time at Newcastle has been one of neglect and disinterest that have increased over each passing year of Ashley’s tenure. So if the results under Bruce were to suddenly drastically go downhill, what seems more likely? That Ashley would recognize the trend quickly and replace Bruce with a manager like Eddie Howe or even a manager of Benitez’s stature? Or that Ashley would allow the situation to fester as long as it could before it was guaranteed to damage his investment and then make the absolute minimum reforms necessary, far too late to change anything, just as he did in 2016?
The silver lining for Newcastle fans is that Mike Ashley wants to sell the club. He really wants to sell the club, going so far as to sue the Premier League over their veto of the proposed takeover this summer. And as long as Newcastle can remain in the Premier League, a sale does look possible. In the Premier League, Newcastle are a club with an unusually large fanbase, stadium, and profile for their price, which makes them an attractive prospect for buyers. In the championship, Newcastle are, like Sunderland, a club with Premier League infrastructure but Championship revenue. Put simply, they’re unsustainable.
It doesn’t look like Bruce is leaving the club anytime soon, and even less likely that, at age 59, he is going to suddenly transform into a different manager he has been his whole career and become capable of consistently organizing fluid attacking play. The best outcome of this season is that he keeps Newcastle in the Premier League, so while we can still keep yelling “Bruce Out” into the void, let’s celebrate all the points we can get.