Newcastle Remain An Enigma

Steve Bruce's Newcastle are defying the science of analytics, but can they keep it up in 2020?
Kristan Heneage
Tue, December 24, 6:59 AM EST

Miguel Almiron could finally breathe a sigh of relief. It had taken 27 games, a little under 2200 minutes, but the Paraguayan finally had a goal in the Premier League.

You’d struggle to find a person inside St James’ Park (away fans excluded) that wasn’t delighted for Almiron. On the surface, a lack of goals is undoubtedly a negative, but the Paraguayan’s hard work off the ball underlined someone that was desperately trying to make an impact.

The game itself against Crystal Palace had been a non-event up until that point. The visitors had some good chances, while the hosts huffed and puffed in the final third. When taking the entire 90 minutes in totality, it forms a microcosm for what this season has been for Newcastle -- negative and positive wrapped up in one.

The Magpies go into Christmas inside the top half. They’re 10 points above the relegation places and have recorded big wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, as well as taking a position from reigning champions Manchester City. And yet, something remains off, a nagging doubt in the back of your head.

Yes, the points are trickling in, but the performances are far from vintage. To complain about such a fact seems almost ungrateful if you’re a Newcastle fan. No one can argue that after a rocky start, Steve Bruce’s team are now picking up points and exceeding expectations, but something about it feels very unsustainable.

The euphoria surrounding Almiron’s goal is a far cry from Bruce’s first day in charge. Running parallel to the news of the 58-year-old’s appointment was the trending hashtag, #BruceOut. Social media can often be an echo chamber, but in this instance, it was fair to say Bruce had his doubters and dissenters. Even now, attendances remain down on last year, although it is hard to discern how many are just protesting Mike Ashley’s ownership.

Statistically, those against the move had valid reasons. Bruce’s record as a Premier League manager does not stack up well. He arrived off the back of two mediocre spells in the Championship with Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa. Any of the positive talk shadowing his appointment focused on sentiment and not a stellar list of recent achievements.

One of Bruce’s first acts as manager was to promise ‘expansive’ football. His predecessor, Rafa Benitez, had produced glimpses of attacking quality, but the foundations of his plan rested in a stern defensive unit and rapid counter-attacking. Bruce attempted to change things early in the season but eventually decided that the use of Benitez’s 3-4-3/ 5-3-2 formation was best for the squad.

Unsurprisingly, Newcastle have mostly maintained last season’s traits since Bruce reverted to that formation. The team’s strength still rests in its defensive unit, while the attack needs to be clinical. To Bruce’s credit, the team’s wingbacks now play in a more advanced position and are expected to contribute in attack when possible.

Just as with last season Newcastle are not dominating the ball, (they are averaging 39% per game this season, the lowest in the league). Under Benitez, the Magpies often drew criticism for their willingness to give opponents the majority of possession, and yet this season the club’s share of the ball has dropped compared to the previous campaign.

That’s why it’s challenging to evaluate Newcastle this season accurately. Defensively, the team’s record is on the better side of those in the bottom half. In attack, only Crystal Palace and Watford have scored fewer. Given the club invested £60million in attackers this summer it is a surprising stat.

Amazingly, it is the club’s defenders that have scored the goals to shoot Newcastle up the league. Almiron, Allan Saint-Maximin and Joelinton cost a combined £80 million, but between them, they have three goals this season. Federico Fernandez, Ciaran Clark and Fabian Schar have five.

As such, it feels like more time is needed before a clear conclusion can be reached on this team. In the traditional sense, Newcastle are not playing well. The team are not creating a host of chances, but they are, most importantly of all, winning football matches.

Goals like that of Almiron will add gloss to what had otherwise been drab affairs, but the bigger question remains about how sustainable any of this could be. Sean Dyche’s Burnley have often defied the science of analytics, and it remains to be seen whether Steve Bruce can continue to work the same kind of magic at St James’ Park. It is for that reason alone that predicting the club’s fortunes under Bruce in 2020 appears even more difficult now than they did when he was first appointed.

By Kristan Heneage

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