In this mini-series, we will be breaking down emergent issues that Steve Bruce will need to address as Newcastle United manager. There will also be long-term considerations for each action item.
Item #1: Solve the Midfield Dilemma
With the festive period nearing its conclusion, Newcastle’s Premier League fixture list will cease to be as congested as it has been over the month or so. Sure, there will be midweek matches on occasion, especially due to the late start to the season, but rotating won’t be nearly as apparent or necessary in the coming months. Most PL teams have lengthy injury lists right now, so going back to playing once a week will be welcomed by most managers. All of that said, Steve Bruce will have to start thinking more about his full-strength lineup, and the central midfield department will likely result in some headaches.
Below is the midfield pairings that Bruce opted for in each of the matches during the festive period:
12/12 v West Brom: Sean Longstaff and Jonjo Shelvey
12/16 v Leeds United: Sean Longstaff and Isaac Hayden
12/19 v Fulham: Sean Longstaff and Jonjo Shelvey
12/22 v Brentford (EFL Cup): Sean Longstaff and Jonjo Shelvey
12/26 v Man City: Matty Longstaff and Isaac Hayden
12/30 v Liverpool: Matty Longstaff and Isaac Hayden
1/3 v Leicester City: Sean Longstaff and Matty Longstaff
Excluding Jeff Hendrick, who Steve Bruce seemingly prefers to position as a right midfielder, Newcastle’s four main central midfielders were given the chance to stake their claim in the engine room. Sean Longstaff picked up five starts. Jonjo Shelvey picked up three starts. Isaac Hayden, who notably played center back against West Brom and was suspended for the Leicester game, picked up three starts in midfield. Matty Longstaff, who has recently emerged from an injury layoff, has picked up three straight starts.
With rotation no longer being as necessary, Steve Bruce will have to start honing in on his preferred central midfield pairing. If one was to compare the recent form of each of the central midfield options, Jonjo Shelvey would undoubtedly in a tier below the rest, so that might make the immediate decision a bit easier for Bruce. It’s also worth noting that Matty Longstaff has accumulated three starts in succession, so he definitely seems to be in good graces with the gaffer.
Realistically, Isaac Hayden is the most defensively sound of the three, so he should be a shoo-in for one of the spots. If one was to guess, Matty Longstaff and Isaac Hayden look most likely to be Steve Bruce’s preferred midfield pairing, at least for the immediate future. I personally would not be opposed to an Isaac Hayden-Matty Longstaff central midfield pairing. Matty Longstaff most closely fits the box-to-box central midfielder mold, and that would complement a true central defensive midfielder like Isaac Hayden pretty well. Anything is possible, though. Before the season, none of us would have anticipated that Jeff Hendrick would be called upon for anything more than squad depth, yet he looked like one of the first names on Steve Bruce’s team sheet earlier this season. Point being, that Steve Bruce is not as predictable or rational as fans would hope.
Who do you want to see play in the heart of midfield for Newcastle United?
Related Long-Term Question to be Asked:
Should Newcastle United’s next big signing be a central midfielder?
Yes! It’s been a long while since Newcastle properly invested in a central midfielder (no, Jeff Hendrick does not count). The club was fortunate to have Sean Longstaff and Matty Longstaff come through the academy recently, but they haven’t exactly progressed as was hoped. That isn’t necessarily their fault by the way; poor tactics, contract stalemates, transfer rumors, and nagging injuries are a part of the game. Any of these is enough to throw a footballer off their game. The Longstaff brothers have had to deal with a difficult combination of the bunch. I digress about that though.
In recent years, Newcastle has brought in stop-gap solutions like Ki Sung-Yeung and Jeff Hendrick to seemingly add squad depth (although Bruce’s liking for Hendrick spiraled out of control). The fact is that most of Newcastle’s central midfielders have part of what is needed to be a great central midfielder. Depending on who you ask, Jonjo Shelvey has got adequate passing ability. Isaac Hayden has the defensive ability and work ethic needed to succeed. The two still have their obvious deficiencies though. Sean Longstaff and Matty Longstaff have both shown glimpses of being the type of good central midfielder that Newcastle has been crying out for, but they haven’t been able to show it on the pitch consistently for the aforementioned reasons.
We saw it a few days ago against Leicester; quality in midfield is as crucial in football as a potent strike force or a dependable goalkeeper. Leicester’s midfield on the day truly earned them the three points. Wilfred N’Didi put in a man of the match performance while keeping the ball moving and protecting his back-line. Youri Tielemans often kickstarted the Leicester attack and chipped in with his share of counter-attack-stopping tackles as well.