Everyone remembers high school group projects. It always starts the same way, high hopes and excitement for anything but an individual test. But inevitably, three fourths of the group is revealed to be deadbeats and it’s essentially up to one person to save the project.
That dude is Allan Saint-Maximin.
From the beginning today, it was apparent it wasn’t going to be pretty. Joelinton and Shelvey inexplicably still in the team. Three center halves that really have never played together. Alas, this is what has become the expectation under Steve Bruce.
The tactics weren’t much better. Shelvey and Sean Longstaff were outnumbered in midfield and Newcastle seemed happy to cede the bulk of possession to Burnley. Burnley, who are third bottom in attacking touches, and fourth bottom in touches in the opponents penalty area. If a side ever needs a confidence boost, they just need a date with Steve Bruce to gain some confidence on the ball.
Then came the all-too-expected outcome of defensive confusion. As a surprise to absolutely no one except Steve Bruce, playing three at the back is, in fact, more complicated than a defensive pairing. Starting Fede Fernandez, along with recently-dropped Ciaran Clark, and usual-Left Back Paul Dummett was probably not a smart move. Burnley are by far the league leaders in Long Balls and Newcastle’s coach decided to make major changes to their defensive organization. (While realizing Jamaal Lascelles was injured and unavailable, there were probably better ways to remedy this, along with a more simple defensive shape as well as hammering it out on the training ground.)
This manifested itself just 18 minutes into the match, as evidenced below. Clark and Fernandez are essentially playing inside of each others’ boots, with both expecting the other to be in another position. Then, we’ve got four defenders essentially covering two attackers, leaving the trailing attacker completely unmarked for an easy score into a gaping goal.
The rest of the first half and start of the second half wasn’t much better, outside of a penalty shout that fairly obviously should have gone the way of Newcastle. Burnley controlled possession, and Newcastle didn’t create much going forward.
57 minutes into the match, Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin came on for Joelinton and Dwight Gayle. Although the move should have warranted a formation change, the custard-eating manager decided to stick both players on in a forward role (as opposed to moving ASM out wide in his most effective position.)
But sometimes, that one teammate just puts the rest of the ineffective, unmotivated, and unqualified group on his back and carries them across the finish line.
Saint-Maximin wasted little time bursting into the Burnley 18-yard box, dizzying defenders and squaring a pass for Jacob Murphy who absolutely amazed with a right footed shot into the left side netting. Not five minutes later, Saint-Maximin once again turned a defender inside out, capping off a run from the halfway line and giving Newcastle United a 2-1 lead.
The rest of the match would see Newcastle grind out a victory despite some heavy pressure from the Clarets. Outside of Saint-Maximin’s heroics, there wasn’t much to write home about for the Toon. Perhaps Martin Dubravka gets a shout for a few nice saves including his best against friendly fire from Paul Dummett.
So the question is, now what? Allan Saint-Maximin, for a single week, overcame a negative, off the pace side that seemed resigned to relegation. As has been pointed out time and again, NUFC are bottom four or five in most attacking and possession categories. They go from match to match seemingly without a plan for different opponents, while also not playing a formation to accentuate their players’ strengths. At this point, the manager can’t even remember what the result was from the last match, and it’s not clear he’s aware of the next opponent, either.
"We can't get carried away but back to back wins in the Premier League if you're in the bottom half of the division is huge."— Football Daily (@footballdaily) April 11, 2021
Steve Bruce knows Newcastle have to remain focused going in to the final games of the season pic.twitter.com/QzMoSa0nfc
(Bruce incorrectly cited a win against Spurs despite it only being a draw. He had done this previously, forgetting a loss to Crystal Palace.)
Steve Bruce often talks about the accumulation of points, but that’s really not what this is. Fifteen points from their last 21 matches and hoping Fulham lose every single week is not a strategy to accumulate points. In fact, it’s always a joke with Bruce. There’s always a scapegoat, or there’s something with which to take a dig at supporters.
Steve Bruce: “I got home Sunday & my good lady had cooked me Sunday lunch. By the time we’d sat down Mitrovic scored for Fulham. By time I’d had my apple pie & custard they’d lost 3-1. Like any other household I don’t know if I can put myself through it (Fulham on TV tonight).”— Keith Downie (@SkySports_Keith) April 9, 2021
Newcastle may eventually find themselves safe this season, but it’s not over yet. There’s still time for non-existent tactics and difficult fixtures to let Fulham right back into the discussion. Hoping that a special talent like ASM creates something from nothing is a very dangerous strategy, given his up and down form and nagging injury history.
It’s a pathetic existence on Premier League life support, and narrowly surviving the drop and not sending the manager as far away from St. James’ Park as possible the second the final whistle blows on the 23rd of May is a surefire way to begin next seasons campaign as relegation favorites. If this was your group project, would you be the person earning the group an “A”, or would you be the Steve Bruce, uninformed, unprepared, and just along for the ride?