Newcastle United are planted in a relegation battle, and there’s a bumper episode of ‘whose fault is it anyway?’ airing around the city. Ahead of Newcastle v Wolves, RadioTimes.com explores who is truly at fault for this season’s debacle.
By Simon Gallagher
Ever since Mike Ashley came to Newcastle on a magic carpet of promised billions and dangerous hope, there’s been a blame game playing out on Tyneside.
Ashley’s rugged defiance of sound advice, as evidenced perfectly by his fondness for teaming jeans and dress shoes, has led to a litany of mistakes that he is absolutely to blame for.
Notoriously, 2020/21 started with hints of a major takeover and by the tail-end of February has morphed, in the most beautifully Newcastle way, into a relegation battle that the manager, the owner and several highly-paid pundits seem to believe is a figment of the fanbase’s imagination.
This relegation battle is thanks to Steve Bruce, not Ashley.
Yes, the new style of play thanks to Graeme Jones is great, but only until however long it takes for either the opposition to realise the team press in the final third but not in their own half. Or for the first XI to conk out with exhaustion.
We have been led to believe this is the fault of changing tactics mid-season, while also being told that Newcastle always needed a change of tactics and also that the pragmatic style suits the limited personnel options.
All the while, though, precious few seem to be willing to accept that there might be a direct correlation between failed tactics and the man with the whiteboard and pen circling Allan Saint-Maximin furiously as his only answer.
Whether Newcastle fans ask too much in their football dreams (a unique criminality reserved for the “goldfish bowl” apparently) shouldn’t come into it when the players cannot compete a pass longer than four yards.
That fans don’t want Ashley is undeniable, but it also has nothing to do with the fact Bruce’s insistence on playing a pressing front three in Callum Wilson’s absence has been rendered completely ineffectual by the slow-moving presence of Joelinton.
That Steve Bruce wasn’t a welcome replacement for Rafa Benitez doesn’t excuse Jonjo Shelvey playing spectacular long balls to thin air. Unreasonable expectations are part of being a fan, but wanting more than 30 per cent possession is hardly unreasonable.
The great lie of Newcastle United this season is that the players are not good enough to be anywhere but uncomfortably 17th. Yes, Mike Ashley is a problem and there are players who shouldn’t be in the first team, but even if the strongest possible first team was out on the pitch, it wouldn’t matter, as their passing skills and ability to press attackers while also covering space in defence have seemingly been trained out of them.
Bruce was afforded a lot of credit last year for Newcastle’s defensive shape and it seems to have translated this year into a steadfast belief that shape is all you need.
Banks of players defending is fine if you have a plan to limit the opposition’s ball usage, but operating a “tactic” that requires your opponent to lose the ball through their own mistakes is ridiculous. He told us he didn’t do tactics, he shows open contempt for the idea of his predecessor as a master tactician, yet when Newcastle have no Plan B to back up a thin Plan A, Bruce remains remarkably free from blame.
He will roll up his sleeves, dust himself down and suggest the fans are a “unique lot” based on their absolutely unprecedented desire not to lose every game with a pathetic whimper.
There’s a lot wrong with Newcastle United and getting rid of Bruce would solve only some of the problems, but crucially, it would solve the most concerning. Because, as painful as it is, Newcastle have become experts in enduring Ashley.
We’ve done it for years, in fact. It just feels worse when Bruce is offering the “positives” his team will definitely take into the next defeat as if they’re any sort of replacement for points or performances.
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