What can numbers really tell you about a game? The numbers from today’s 1-1 draw suggest a game in which Spurs dominated Newcastle and were extremely unlucky to leave without all three points. They controlled possession: 66% to 34%. They completed 640 passes to Newcastle’s 317, and had 818 touches to Newcastle’s 494. They took 23 shots, 12 of those on goal, while Newcastle took 6 with only one on goal: that one shot on goal being Callum Wilson’s penalty in the 7th minute of stoppage time.
Four minutes earlier, Newcastle had been awarded a free kick in Tottenham’s half when Pierre-Emile Højbjerg made the lazy error of
fouling Joelinton being fouled by Joelinton. Shelvey took the free kick and a leaping Andy Carroll met his lofted ball into the box. Eric Dier, marking Carroll, made the classic mistake of - checks notes - having arms. More importantly, his arms were in the way of Carroll’s header, and Dier stupidly forgot to move them out of the way in the time that the ball traveled the three inches between the two players.
After a VAR check, Peter Bankes awarded the penalty and Wilson slotted it home to draw the game level, 1-1. In response, Mourinho stormed down the tunnel, clearly furious that Steve Bruce had proven him a fraud. Sure, the statistics imply that Mourinho’s Spurs dominated the game in every conceivable way. But examine those stats a little closer and do they not reveal a ruthless efficiency to Steve Bruce’s team? They don’t need to control possession; tiki-taka’s just a fancy Spanish word for wasted energy. They don’t need twelve shots on goal - they just need one. In fact, Newcastle’s three Premier League goals this season have come from just three shots on goal in total. Luck? Maybe. More likely it’s proof that Steve Bruce is the league’s best finishing coach. Looking at the numbers this way, we can easily empathize with Mourinho’s anger. He had come to play checkers. Steve Bruce plays chess.
I wish I had just seen the numbers. Unfortunately, I watched the game. And although my hopes weren’t high before kickoff, they plummeted as I realized that Isaac Hayden was not playing in midfield. Oh God. It’s 5-4-1.
Over the last three years, Newcastle fans have endured hours of turgid football watching the 5-4-1: it was Benitez’s preferred formation and one that Bruce employed for the first half of last year. And while I still have fond memories of Benitez, I don’t rewatch the games. In 2017/18, Newcastle scored 39 goals (13th) and allowed 47 (6th). In 2018/19, they scored 42 (16th) and allowed 48 (tied for 7th). Jogo bonito.
Yet, for all the 1-1s, 0-0s, and generally uninspiring football, we at least saw, in the second half of the 18/19 season, a glimpse of Benitez’s positive vision. At the start of gameweek 23, Newcastle sat in 18th place, having spent nearly half the season in the relegation zone. Over their next 14 games, Newcastle picked up 27 points (out of a total 45 that season) and, compared to the rest of the League over the same stretch, were 5th for poins, 4th for goals, and tied 4th for goals conceded.
What had changed? Well, for one, Benitez had gotten his signing - Miguel Almirón - that winter: reportedly having threatened to quit if the club called off the deal. Benitez quickly integrated Almirón into an attacking trio of himself, Ayoze Pérez, and Salomón Rondón. And while Almirón failed to register any assists or goals, he created more chances per 90 than anyone in the Newcastle team while playing in a new, deeper role. In the ten games that Ayoze, Almirón and Rondon played together, Newcastle won five, drew two, and lost three, for an average of 1.7 points per game (compared to 1.0 ppg without Almirón).
As boring as Rafa’s 5-4-1 was, it was at least his formation. He had a weak squad with limited depth and chose the formation out of practicality. Nevertheless, he committed to the formation and drilled his system into his players. The games were rarely entertaining and Newcastle didn’t score many goals, but their defense kept them up. And for the half season after Almirón joined, Newcastle looked like a team that could score goals and win games. Benitez showed us a different vision of the team - and football - that he hoped to build.
Comparatively, we’re a year into Steve Bruce’s tenure and his vision is unclear. He used the formation he inherited for the first half of last year but admitted, after switching to four at the back, “it was never the way I wanted us to play”. Well, what is that way? Does he see Almirón as a winger or a ten? Wilson as a lone striker or someone best in a pairing? His choices so far this season have been - on their face - reactive. The 4-4-2 worked against West Ham so he kept it for Brighton. They conceded three against Brighton so he chose 5-4-1 for Tottenham, a set-up which arguably benefited Tottenham. They were able to maintain possession comfortably, and when Newcastle’s few counter-attacks inevitably fizzled, Tottenham sped up their passing and exploited the newfound space. It was only thanks to a brilliant performance from Karl Darlow that Newcastle were able to tie the game with a single goal.
Granted, Bruce is integrating multiple new signings - one of whom is still getting back to full fitness - while dealing with several injuries. But we know that Wilson, Lewis, Fraser, and Hendrick were all signings that Bruce wanted; presumably he has an idea of how they fit into his team. With those four signings alone, Bruce has had more control over the composition of his team than Benitez ever did.
Just three games into the season, it’s of course too early to call it one way or another. We’re all aware Bruce isn’t Guardiola, but there’s enough quality and experience in this squad that he doesn’t need to be Guardiola to keep them up. He’s got the players he wanted; now he needs a coherent vision of how they’ll play.