Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle United side were built on a defensive structure designed to stop teams cutting through them easily.
While that attracted criticism at times and, like any tactic, was not 100% successful, there was at least a method to watching the Magpies cede possession on a regular basis. Indeed, when Jonjo Shelvey shot straight from kick-off against Manchester City in December 2017, it was an immediate indication that Newcastle were going to revert to their shape and allow Pep Guardiola’s men onto them.
Ultimately, City still won that game through a Raheem Sterling goal but such a ploy was easier to accept because there was at least a clear plan on what the team were going to do. They’d sit back and wait to hit on the counter late on. In some cases it worked, it some cases it didn’t.
Under Steve Bruce at the moment, there isn’t any suggestion of a plan.
It is not Bruce’s fault that he’s not Benitez. Well over a year into his tenure now, he must be judged on his work.
What is Bruce’s fault, however, is the complete lack of organisation.
During the miserable loss at home to Chelsea which followed a miserable loss away at Southampton, the Magpies created so little that Ian Darke and Steve McManaman on BT Sport comms often referred to the contest as a ‘training game’.
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According to WhoScored, not a single Newcastle player was able to make more than 36 passes. To put that into context, Edouard Mendy in the Chelsea goal made 41. Those watching on social media spoke of how passive the team were, with George Caulkin even joking his recent dental work was a more enjoyable experience in watching the Toon.
Federico Fernandez’s mistake for the opening goal was indicative of the team’s struggles. When so much pressure comes on keeping a clean sheet in order to stay in the game, something as innocuous as a trailing leg diverting the ball away from Karl Darlow becomes the killer blow.
No manager can mitigate for that. Just as no manager can mitigate for the fact both Miguel Almiron and Sean Longstaff were caught in possession down on the South Coast little over a fortnight ago. What they can plan for, however, is what their team are going to do and how they are going to try and get a result.
Averaging the fewest shots on target in the Premier League per game this season and being the least efficient side in possession in the entire division, the lack of an obvious plan has also been a topic raised by Chris Waugh.
That’s largely what Benitez did and that’s why his reactive style was broadly more accepted than Bruce’s.