It’s amazing what the return of Allan Saint-Maximin, the gradual lowering of expectations and a deepening sense of crisis have done for perspective at Newcastle United. Leeds United won at St James’ Park on Tuesday evening, ending their own run of three straight defeats while stretching their hosts’ wait for a league victory to nine games. Yet, some takeaways from the match suggested there was something to cling onto; a second half performance that could act as a small shelter from the near constant storm of negativity at Newcastle, which is edging closer to swallowing Steve Bruce whole.
Introducing Saint-Maximin in the second half made a difference. Newcastle were drifting until then; his pace, trickery and desire to run at players was the antithesis of what the team had been doing for the weeks he was battling a serious case of COVID-19. For long spells, they pressed, they hurried and they showed intent; Saint-Maximin had to be marked by two Leeds players, such was their awareness of the damage he was causing.
Four minutes after equalising through Miguel Almiron, though, Newcastle conceded again as Raphinha, Leeds’ own danger man who had opened the scoring, found Jack Harrison, who bent the ball home from the corner of the area with the outside of his boot. It was all too easy.
But the narrative had swung from perennial misery to Newcastle finally showing something going forward. In the grand scheme of things, it means nothing because, despite Newcastle pulling a surprise victory out of the bag against a surprisingly poor Everton on Saturday, their results remain terrible. However, suddenly supporters are being told there is reason to be hopeful.
As social media swirls to create a pandemic-era sense of protest against the manager, Danny Mills even went as far to say it would be “crazy” to sack Steve Bruce at the sight of mild improvement for Newcastle. In the manager’s defence, summoning Saint-Maximin and Ryan Fraser is a luxury he had pinned his season on but had hardly been able to enjoy because of their lengthy fitness issues. Issues run deep, though, and pinning all hopes on them is a dangerous and potentially futile
Time to go! #BruceOut pic.twitter.com/HbiPYCB8eM
— NUFC 360 (@NUFC360) January 26, 2021
Almost a quarter of the campaign passed since Newcastle’s last Premier League victory before the Everton game, it was on December 12th at home to West Bromwich Albion. Such an unforgiving, frantic fixture pile up meant there was no room for error, but the Magpies made plenty as they also exited two cup competitions.
The harshest moment of winter was always likely to define the direction of Newcastle’s season. Sat comfortably in midtable heading into the Christmas rush, there was an opportunity to cement their position and reach a first semi final since 2005 before looking foreword to attacking another competition in the New Year. Newcastle fans who were far from happy with Steve Bruce but were also withholding a mutiny while the team lurched from result to result and system to system, expected optimism to crumble because they knew of little more than cruel disappointment. That is exactly what happened.
Brentford rested key players, including top scorer and former Newcastle striker Ivan Toney, in anticipation of the busy schedule and its impact on their promotion push. Yet, they still out-fought, out-thought and overpowered a strong looking side put forward by Bruce. It wasn’t just the Carabao Cup exit itself which stung, but the manner of it, and the tragic clarity it showed.
Newcastle barely threw a punch in the game that meant more than any other; it was the perfect opportunity to chase something, throw caution to the wind without fear of consequences. Instead, they turned up, sat back and took the consequences anyway. That has been the story for much of Bruce’s reign, but it has become more pertinent recently. There is a lack of direction and inspiration which plagues the team and makes them look as if they are petrified of playing football.
The FA Cup came and went, away at Arsenal in one of the least troublesome performances of this most damaging of periods. It preceded the epicentre of the crisis; defeat at previously winless and cut-adrift Sheffield United felt very similar to the Brentford debacle. It was passive and, crucially, devoid of any identity in defence or attack. Steve Bruce came out afterwards and decreed that the “gloves were off” and said Newcastle would do it his way from then on. What followed was a 3-0 defeat at Arsenal and then a 2-0 loss to Aston Villa.
Prior to Leeds and the return of Saint-Maximin, he and the club refused to take answers from the written press, having taken issue with their coverage of their plight. Broadcasters were permitted to grill Bruce, but it is the newspaper journalists who usually ask tougher, more specific questions. Silencing them also lowered the risk of Bruce making antagonistic comments towards supporters, as had become a common theme.
One such remark was a not so subtle dig at Rafael Benitez, his predecessor. He called him the “mighty Rafa”, referencing the adulation from supporters which he has never been able to enjoy, while defending his record in comparison. It was an answer to a question that didn’t involve the Spaniard. However, after he left Chinese club Dalian Pro and announced he was targeting a return to English football but would wait for the right job to arrive, perhaps Bruce is worried about his presence in the minds of fans and gossip columists.
Remember how Bruce is doing better than “the mighty Rafa” https://t.co/VcRjatw2PI
— Jamie (@jamieparsons0) January 26, 2021
There is no real possibility of an immediate return to Newcastle because the relationship between himself and Mike Ashley broke down irreparably, but speculation is rife that a takeover could see him return.
In October 2008, Joe Kinnear swore 52 times at his first press conference, enraged at the way his arrival as interim manager was covered. By the following May, Newcastle were relegated without Kinnear at the helm due to health reasons. Just over a week before Steve McClaren was sacked in March 2016 and replaced by Benitez, who couldn’t stop a second relegation, he was confronted by a journalist he accused of having an agenda against the club. Creating a divide from the media has not ended well in the past. Similarities off the pitch, as well as on it, with both seasons are developing and alarm bells are sounding.
The Steve Bruce vs. Rafa Benitez subplot has long frustrated Newcastle supporters. Often told, without much foundation, that performances that have plagued the team under Bruce are no different to when Benitez was in charge, they also have to listen to a discourse which centres on the fact that Bruce is working with poor players and under a difficult owner. If the second half against Leeds showed anything, it was that the team is far more capable than has been suggested recently, with Saint-Maximin emphasising the underachievement.
Whereas Benitez’s critics accused him of setting up too defensively and lamented his popularity on Tyneside, Bruce’s defenders – many of whom are the same people – prefer to say he is working with difficult conditions. That is despite the fact he was backed more heavily with investment and is significantly lagging behind when it comes to enforcing an identity on the team.
Putting aside the fact that Newcastle were statistically more effective, and entertaining, in Benitez’s final 19 games compared to Bruce’s most recent 19, they were also much more regimented, solid and competitive. The nature of modern debate means taking one side of the other, and Bruce has fuelled that fire, but facts and figures back the idea of regression at Newcastle since the managerial change in 2019. Even judging Steve Bruce against himself, as should be the case, there is very little if any progress to be seen at Newcastle since his arrival.
Newcastle are hurtling towards disaster once again, regardles off the return of Saint-Maximin. For the first time in weeks, moments in the Leeds game made it engrossing and that is something to be pleased about. The team was fighting, pressing and playing with aggression, but that should be the minimum requirement, and dressing it up as a positive only serves to show the depth of the trouble on Tyneside once again.