Steve Bruce has not spent too much time briefing his squad about the new protocols designed to eliminate hugs, handshakes and, worst of all, kisses from on-pitch celebrations. “I’d like to see us score a goal first,” says Newcastle’s manager. “We can worry about it then.”
After a run of eight games without a win and one goal in 10 hours, Bruce is in big trouble. Although Mike Ashley is believed to have little appetite for sacking him, a majority of fans want the 60-year-old out and he has taken the high-stakes gamble of eviscerating his players in public.
When Newcastle visit Arsenal on Monday night all eyes will be on his team’s response to being, variously, informed they are “too comfortable”, possess a “mentality” problem and were “frigging hopeless” and “absolute shite” during last Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat at Sheffield United.
Bruce says he retains his squad’s respect, but players rarely relish being dissected so publicly. “We all have to accept criticism and I expect some sort of response at Arsenal,” he says. “I’m the wrong one to ask [if he has lost the dressing room] but I saw nothing wrong with the Liverpool performance [a 0-0 draw on 30 December]. I still believe in the players but we can’t accept that performance at Sheffield United. In a big, big game, we were nowhere near what’s required.”
Given that they have collected a modest 19 points from 17 matches there is little doubt that Newcastle will be drawn into a relegation skirmish without significant improvement.
They have a habit of raising their game against leading teams but surrendering to supposedly beatable opponents – although much hinges on whether they set up with a back four or a back three.
The importance of systems can be exaggerated but Bruce’s desire to operate with two central defenders and his players’ devotion to the 3-4-3 system devised by his predecessor, Rafael Benítez, appears at the heart of internal tensions.
Last month a dressing-room delegation asked Bruce to abandon his experiment with a back four and revert to the formation Benítez felt camouflaged the lack of central defensive pace hampering an otherwise reliable and tactically intelligent backline.
Another reason that the defenders, including the impressive Federico Fernández – who played for Benítez at Napoli and Bruce describes as “probably our best professional” – are so keen to stick with a three-man rearguard is the team’s weakness in central midfield.
While Jonjo Shelvey and Jeff Hendrick have struggled there, perhaps the biggest disappointment has been Sean Longstaff. A midfielder Manchester United once wanted to spend £20m on has regressed alarmingly since Benítez’s departure for China and now plays as if mentally scarred by the ruptured cruciate ligament that interrupted his progress. Longstaff shows flashes of his old ability but there are times when he resembles a player either struggling with a slight loss of nerve or who does not entirely trust his repaired knee.
It is all very well for Bruce to say “the gloves are off – and we’ll do it my way now” but the current squad does not appear well-suited to his vision of rearranging Newcastle into a newly expansive form of 4–4-2.
There is also a sense that a lot of people involved with the club are still struggling to come terms with the departure of the much adored Benítez 18 months ago and regard Bruce as second best. Luck, too, comes into the equation.
Significantly, the two players to suffer most during the club’s recent Covid outbreak were the captain, Jamaal Lascelles, and their most gifted player, Allan Saint-Maximin.
While Lascelles is finally fit again, Saint-Maximin has been absent since late November and only returned to light training at the weekend. An increasingly crucial-looking home game against Leeds next Tuesday looks like it will arrive too soon for the winger Bruce regards as important to his side as Virgil van Dijk is to Liverpool.
It is no coincidence that, without Saint-Maximin serving as a decoy, Callum Wilson’s previously steady stream of goals have dried up and results declined accordingly.
“If your most creative player isn’t there then, no matter who you are, you’re going to miss him,” says Bruce, whose attempts to replace Benítez’s old counterattacking strategy with a more possession-based game have failed. “Allan gives you a spark in that final third. Have we missed him? 100% yes. Playing on the counterattack we’re not quite the same without him.”
Newcastle’s manager may sympathise with another of his predecessors, Kevin Keegan, who once complained the job “is not like it said in the brochure” – but it would be wrong to suspect he wants out.
“I’ve waited my whole life for an opportunity like this and it might be my last job,” says Bruce. “Being from here, I regard it as the pinnacle. I will try my utmost under difficult circumstances.”