Steve Bruce has always spoken about how it’s his dream to be Newcastle United manager, but there’s a big aspect of that he hasn’t been so vocal on. That is what he actually wants his Newcastle United to be.
It’s a bigger question than it seems and, after a year and a half, there’s no answer or clarity beyond open-ended descriptions like “a work in progress”.
It is of course clear what the Newcastle supporters want. Bruce is someway lucky there are no fans in stadiums right now, because many would be openly calling for his sacking. Rafa Benitez’s name would be regularly mentioned, given his popularity, and the fact he harboured hopes of being re-installed as part of the Saudi Arabia takeover.
Looking from afar, there can be a mistaken view that this is harsh, or too demanding.
Newcastle are in mid-table and Bruce’s record is, superficially, broadly similar to Benitez’s. The stats could make you think he’s maintained a consistency. With Benitez having been in charge for 2017-18 and 2018-19, before Bruce took over at the start of last season, the figures are as follows.
Position: 10th, 13th, 13th.
Points: 44, 45, 44.
Goals scored: 39, 42, 38
Goals conceded: 47, 48, 58.
The only real difference is in goals conceded, but that points to bigger differences behind the scenes that are relevant to what next.
Benitez comes from a somewhat outdated post-2000 school of management, that was based on “defensive control”, but it was defined by a remarkable meticulousness. The Spaniard would deeply think about every aspect of the team, going back and forth over minor details.
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Those who have worked with Bruce wouldn’t quite say the same.
The more specific stats aren’t as similar either. His Newcastle have gone backwards from Benitez’s in pretty much all attacking figures, from shots per game to goals from open play.
The most complimentary description of Bruce’s approach would be that it’s an old-fashioned type of “macro-management”.
Sources state his entire philosophy is that the team with the better players will win any given game eight times out of 10, so the objective is to have better players than enough other clubs in the league.
This is what it comes down to. Players who have worked with Bruce say he expects them to be “the finished product”, and that they didn’t really encounter much deeper coaching or development in his training. Sessions broadly consisted of eight-a-side matches, and time on defensive shape. Some feel this is one reason why a player like Sean Longstaff has plateaued.
“Given the demands, he can’t waste time and energy developing players,” one source says. “The lack of overall strategy can be glaring. It’s fairly basic. At the same time, the players seem to like him and he is good at motivation. A bit like Harry Redknapp in a different era, there’s a lot of buy-in. That can sometimes be enough.”
What constitutes “enough”, however, is another angle to this entirely.
Whatever about buy-in, Bruce’s philosophy on buying players would seem to completely chime with Mike Ashley’s.
A trend of his time as owner has been Newcastle only ever really spending when it has looked like they might be overtaken, and go down. It's simply been about having more than enough other teams.
That is the football form of treading water, so as to keep the stream of Premier League money coming in. The approach has generally done that, but hasn’t done much for fans.
This is why the question of what Bruce wants Newcastle to be is so crucial. As it stands, it seems the answer is little more than “a Premier League club”. Merely maintaining that status seems to dictate everything.
Or, put another way, mere existence. Bruce's “work in progress” doesn’t really progress.
Those who back Bruce would here point to the financial structures of the modern game, that has imposed a series of glass ceilings that are almost impossible to break through. Newcastle's ceiling would seem to be mid-table.
Even if that's true, though, it actually makes the style of football and coaching all the more important.
It was this depressing reality that of course infused the emotionally-charged debate surrounding the takeover, since the imaginations of fans were finally fired.
“Imagination” is what so much of this is about. People go to football for many reasons but among the biggest are identity, escape, excitement and a sense of hope.
The brutal truth is that, respectable as it might be, Bruce’s approach doesn’t really offer any of that. It’s limited, and old-fashioned, well behind the prevailing trends in the game.
“No modern football department would appoint him,” one figure in the game says. “That era of management is dying.”
Most football executives in the modern game realise the need for identity, for something genuinely progressive. That’s actually all the more important in a sport with so many glass ceilings, since it gives them a purpose, and sense of life. It’s something to [open itals] enjoy [close]. That can be seen at Graham Potter’s Brighton and Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton. There’s something more to the football, that also offers more chance of occasionally breaking those ceilings.
There’s something to attach to, something attractive. If all you can be is “a Premier League club”, it is all the more important you offer football that is aspirational.
Newcastle, of all clubs, are well capable of something similar. There is the existing tradition of exciting football. There is an appeal, and size. There just isn’t the football intelligence or foresight at the club.
Ashley has no greater need for it. It could even be argued that mere survival managers suit him fine, especially as he tries to sell the club. It means he doesn’t need much more from his manager, beyond staying in the Premier League.
But the fans need more. The Newcastle football should be so much more.
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