If there is a positive to take from Newcastle’s 3-0 loss to Brighton at home, it’s that hopefully Carroll won’t start next week.
Newcastle began with the same starting lineup that won at West Ham. While Bruce’s strategy of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is understandable enough, there was an obvious complication; Brighton aren’t West Ham.
Brighton played in a 3-4-3 with an energetic, fluid front three of Aaron Connolly, Neal Maupay, and Leandro Trossard and an equally threatening pair of wingbacks in Tariq Lamptey and Solly March. By the time it was clear that Brighton are a much more cohesive, aggressive, and organized side than West Ham were last week, Newcastle were down 2-0. Maupay scored a penalty in the 4th minute and followed it up three minutes later by tapping home Trossard’s low, driven cross.
Immediately, it was clear that Brighton were set up perfectly to neutralize Newcastle’s 4-4-2. Lewis Dunk and Adam Webster - 6’4 and 6’3 respectively - easily handled Carroll’s aerial threat, and - along with Ben White - Brighton’s three central defenders easily mopped up the few Newcastle attacks with any potential in the first half.
Brighton’s attacks easily bypassed the first half midfield duo of Jonjo Shelvey and Isaac Hayden. As Connolly and Trossard both periodically dropped in between Newcastle’s defense and midfield, Shelvey and Hayden were stuck between pressing Brighton’s midfield in front of them or covering the forwards behind them. Connolly and Trossard’s movement drew Jamal Lewis and Manquillo inside, leaving space for Brighton’s marauding fullbacks to run into, which they did and did again. Lamptey terrorized Newcastle’s left side for 57 minutes and was involved in the creation of both of their goals, winning the penalty and setting up Trossard to assist the second.
Newcastle looked much more threatening at the start of the second half, as Almirón came on for Carroll at halftime and the formation shifted to a 4-1-4-1, but that energy climaxed quickly - with a wide open header for Callum Wilson in the 63rd minute that he put well over the crossbar - and then dissipated just as fast. The effect of missing their only good chance of the game was clearly demoralizing; Newcastle’s energy faded and the game looked settled well before Aaron Connolly scored in the 83rd minute.
It was a performance that won’t win Steve Bruce any new backers. Having been supported in the transfer market by Mike Ashley, Bruce is commanding a Newcastle squad with more depth and fewer holes than any in the last half-decade. He wasn’t a popular pick when Newcastle announced him as Ashley’s successor last summer, and in the year since, having won 16 of the 48 games he’s managed for Newcastle, it doesn’t appear that he’s any closer to winning the fans over.
It’s doubtful that Ashley will be looking to replace the manager he uncharacteristically backed this summer anytime soon. Regardless, it’s unclear whether today’s defeat can be attributed entirely to Bruce. Newcastle were tactically outclassed, yes, but the tactical mismatch was accompanied by an immediate deflation after Brighton scored their second; it wasn’t until the introduction of Almirón that Newcastle looked like they had any belief in their chances of clawing the game back.
Representative of this problem is Jonjo Shelvey. Bruce’s preference seems to be 4-4-2, and if that’s to be Newcastle’s formation moving forward, today was a perfect demonstration of why they can’t afford such a bipolar central midfielder. When Newcastle went down, Shelvey made a rash tackle on Lamptey - clearly out of frustration - that earned him a yellow card and that made him, with neither Longstaff brother on the bench, a walking - emphasis on walking - liability for the rest of the game. For most of the first half, Shelvey played on the left side with Saint-Maximin and Lewis - undeniably the more attacking flank - and it’s no coincidence that that majority of Brighton’s chances came on this side. Shelvey’s reluctance to close down players on the edge of the box also led to two good chances for Brighton in the first half: a shot by Bissouma just over the crossbar in the 22nd minute and one by Trossard in stoppage time which led to a shot on goal for Lamptey.
Granted, every once in a while, Shelvey pings an inch-perfect crossfield pass that catches a runner in stride, or a Gerrard-esque driven shot from thirty yards out. If those moments of brilliance came on top of consistent performances as a grafter and leader in midfield, he’d easily be Newcastle’s best player and a fan hero. Yet whenever a game isn’t going Newcastle’s way, Shelvey’s head is the first to drop. He’s likely to put in a reckless challenge and near guaranteed to be caught walking around midfield as the game passes by him. One often gets the feeling that Shelvey’s only interested in being brilliant, and that he has little interest in simply being good. The issue is that Newcastle don’t need brilliant players to stay up this year. They need good ones.