These types of claims are commonplace for the journeyman, often-touted ‘man manager’, but how should these claims be examined?
It’s inevitable that Steve Bruce will be compared to his direct predecessor. The supporters of Newcastle United, outside of a small group of petulant groaners, were also massive supporters of Rafael Benitez. From the way he spoke about the club, to the way he treated the fans, to the way he raised the expectations of the club, his aura resonated with them.
It is also short-sighted to look directly at points gained by each manager and make judgments based on that alone. After all, Steve Bruce is executing at a 1.09 points-per-match clip, and “the mighty Rafa” was only slightly better, at 1.17/match.
No, this comparison cannot simply be left at such a high-level analysis. For this, we need to look at the scenarios surrounding the vastly different situations each manager faced.
Re-Establishing a Premier League Side
It is true that Newcastle United had an uneven squad heading into their first season after promotion. Of the 14 players that appeared in 26+ Championship matches (>60%), 11 of them played in 20 or more matches (>50%) in their first season back in the top flight. (All three of the others were released or loaned out - Anita, Gouffran, and Colback.)
The only players that entered the promoted side and played 20 or more matches were Javier Manquillo, Florian Lejeune, Jacob Murphy, and Joselu, most of which were not the manager's first choice.
It stands to reason the main goal of the 2017-18 season was to re-establish Newcastle United as a Premier League side. This was not a season to have a run at the Cup or take unnecessary risks. A relegation directly after promotion would have been devastating to NUFC.
After a one-week dip into the relegation zone in mid-December, the Magpies went on a 15 match run in which they picked up 26 points (a 66 point pace) and only lost 3 matches. This streak saw them rise 8 spots in the league table, to their eventual finishing spot of 10th, a massive success, and their joint-highest finish since 5th place in 2011-12.
No Further Investment to Press On
To add to the massive challenge of winning with a squad built for the Championship, the Spaniard was not permitted to spend much in the following summer. His marquee signing was £12m for Jacob Murphy, and admittedly, that valuation was based on potential, as the 22-year old had never played a second of Premier League football.
Among the less expensive arrivals, Benitez made some incredible buys. This included a loan-to-buy keeper no one had heard of in Martin Dubravka, Florian Lejeune for less than £9m, and ex-Sunderland fullback Javier Manquillo for £4.5m. Despite crying out to sign a permanent striker, he was only allowed to spend £5m on Joselu (Rafa was not happy with this, as he said you have to pay £15m to find a striker that can kick the ball forward.)
The following summer was somehow worse. Benitez had to settle for Salomon Rondon on loan, and they had a negative £21m transfer spend headed into the final day of January. After 2+ years of begging for a marquee signing, Newcastle United signed Miguel Almiron for £21m on the final day of the transfer window, breaking the clubs long-standing transfer record and bringing the years’ net spend to zero.
The Mags responded, with another torrid run at the second half of 2018-19. From the 19th of January to the end of the season (16 matches), Newcastle accumulated 27 points (a 64 point pace) and the team went from 18th to 13th in the final standings.
The simple additions of Salomon Rondon and Miguel Almiron, despite a flat transfer spend, was enough for Benitez and Co. to finish the season remarkably strong, while setting up a true platform to press on in 2019-20. The club was undoubtedly ready to run.
Steve Bruce was given a Team on the Rise
With Benitez out the door, Steve Bruce inherited a team that had finished comfortably mid-table in back-to-back seasons. The club had also shown, with the two impressive runs of form referenced earlier, that the structure was in place for the next coach to kick on.
A top half of the table keeper in Dubravka in tandem with an incredibly deep center half rotation of Lascelles, Schar, Fernandez, Lejeune and Clark gave a platform for a solid defensive team. Add to that veterans Paul Dummett, Javi Manquillo and DeAndre Yedlin, and the defensive side of the pitch was in order.
The midfield wasn’t too bad, either. Isaac Hayden had genuinely become a fixture for Rafa Benitez, featuring in 84 league matches. The emergence of Sean and Matty Longstaff, two Academy players from the area and on the rise, as well as an exuberant Miggy Almiron, and it’s a capable, if not spectacular midfield.
The attacking group, well, it needed some work. Dwight Gayle was mainly a leftover from the Championship side, and Rafa had gotten by with Joselu and Salomon Rondon - which cannot be overlooked when judging the goal output from previous campaigns.
But make no mistake — the squad of players, with two more years of Premiership experience and rigorous training from Rafa — was miles better than the one that came up in 2017.
Steve Bruce has been given Money to Spend
It is very hard to understand Mike Ashley’s reluctance to support Rafa, as well as take credit for appointing him. Rather, he made Benitez’s life hell, not only having to deal with scraping together a plan on the pitch, but fighting an internal battle to get the players he saw necessary, as Bruce would say, to “take the club forward.”
Seemingly the second Rafa’s contract expired, Steve Bruce was allowed to sign new players. Joelinton was signed for a club record £40m. With Ayoze leaving for £30m, the club spent more, bringing in Allan Saint-Maximin for another £20m and signing former Toon star Andy Carroll to fairly high wages.
So now, not only has Steve Bruce inherited a comfortably mid-table side, but he’s been able to spend on what he would call “his signings”, as he insists he has the final say on transfers.
What the Data Shows
With the squad and transfer funds settled, a closer look into how the team on the pitch performed is warranted.
With Benitez at the helm, the team was very often in every match. In the 78 Premier League matches he managed, the team lost by two or more goals only 12 times (15.4%). Under Bruce (65 matches), they’ve lost by 2+ goals a staggering 21 times (32.3% of matches).
As shown in the tables below, the xG / xGA tells a similar story. In both seasons under Bruce, the xGA (expected goals allowed) has been higher than both seasons prior to his arrival. Similarly, the xG (expected goals) has also dropped, despite the investments made in the transfer market.
Newcastle xG / xGA, 2017-21
Cumulative xG / xGA; Per Match
|||Total xG||Total xGA||Diff|
|||Total xG||Total xGA||Diff|
Newcastle United also had more consistent runs of form under Rafa Benitez than they have under Steve Bruce. With Benitez on the touchline, the team won three matches in a row three separate times. Never once has Steve Bruce’s side done that.
Similarly, from 2017-19, Newcastle had 8 instances in which they went at least three matches without a defeat. In the two seasons since, that has only happened three times.
With all of the details now fully fleshed out, a true analysis of Steve Bruce’s assertion of “taking the club forward” can now be made.
Newcastle United were performing better, based on goal differential, as well as Expected Goals, under Rafa Benitez. This happened with a lesser squad, based on both Premier League experience, as well as transfer funds allocated to improving the team. The team under Benitez was more capable of consistently stringing together performances, as well as flashing their potential shown in two specifically tremendous runs of form that solidified their place in the middle of the table.
In no way, shape, or form has Steve Bruce taken Newcastle United forward. There is hardly a shred of evidence a single facet of the team is better off, and they find themselves in the thick of a relegation battle. Something must change before it’s too late.