Before diving in, let’s review the highlight of the season.
Now that the most important part of this article is out of the way, let’s have a look at Steve Bruce’s first season in charge of Newcastle United.
I know this is a subjective topic, so before I give my own opinion, I do acknowledge there are strong sentiments on either side of the aisle. I had asked my Twitter followers for their thoughts on Steve Bruce this season and had plenty of responses. There was everything from ‘really good’ to ‘utterly awful’. I believe both sides made decent arguments for and against Bruce’s performance this season, so just to reiterate, this is just my opinion.
In addition, I think it’s worth discussing the environment at Newcastle United under this current ownership – irrespective of who the manager is. In the last 13 years, Newcastle have had some decent managers and a surfeit of poor ones – but one thing has remained constant throughout, inept ownership.
As Kevin Keegan famously said “Newcastle are a real one-off. I don’t know of a club that has been run as badly or with such disregard for people…” additionally Alan Shearer has said “There is a lot of unrest in Newcastle because the life and soul really has been sucked out of Newcastle United…”. Given the foundation at the club, it almost doesn’t even matter who United have as a manager/head coach at United – if the ownership is faulty, the club can never progress.
It doesn’t suffice to say that the synergies between management and ownership are non-existent; managing Newcastle United is like trying to sail a ship with a massive hole in the hull. Eventually, the bucket you’re armed with won’t manage emptying out all the sea water flooding in. Ultimately, managing this club doesn’t just simply boil down to tactics and substitutions. There is added bureaucratic baggage that comes with this job that has rightfully earned it the status of a ‘poisoned chalice’. So, when reviewing Bruce’s managerial performance, it behooves oneself to keep this in mind, as handing out a verdict without this context is futile.
Newcastle United are still in the Premier League next season. It’s awful that this is the standard for the club, but it is. Many did favour the Magpies to both get relegated this season as well as for Bruce to get the sack – neither happened. Even with the best manager in the world, I highly doubt, with this squad, that Newcastle could finish in the top 8. On the other hand, I believe a really poor manager would have easily gotten the club relegated. Newcastle fans cannot overlook that Bruce did in fact defy the odds set against him from the onset and he should be duly credited for it.
Additionally, Steve Bruce’s man-management skills, his most powerful asset, were on display this season. I know this doesn’t necessarily make him a great manager, but it can be vital in the development of players and team morale. United’s star, Allan Saint-Maximin recently spoke about the amazing impact Bruce has had on him and I believe this boils down to Bruce’s wonderful ability to connect with his players. Bruce is also extremely loyal & forgiving with his team selection, this worked both for and against him this season. A positive example was his persistence with Manquillo, who I believe was one of the more improved players in the squad.
Steve Bruce was extremely slow to make desperately needed changes throughout the course of the season. This could be seen in two main facets. Firstly, was his perseverance with Joelinton. Unlike Manquillo, Big Jo failed to deliver the goods time and time again. Fans were desperately hoping for Newcastle United’s record signing to adapt and start scoring but it just never came to fruition. In all fairness, this was compounded by poor tactics, where he found himself completely isolated up front for most parts of the season. His goal tally ended on a measly 2 goals, and after spending £40m on him, ‘disappointed’ is the mildest superlative one could use in describing the outcome. It was only after the restart did Bruce switch to Dwight Gayle and it duly paid dividends. He ended up with 4 goals and 2 assists from 9 starts which was a much better return than what the Brazilian offered.
Secondly, the tactics and style of play were subpar. Newcastle played some horrendous football this season, it’s hard to look past this. The persistence of setting up with 5 at the back led to some of the worst performances seen in a while; Manchester City and Leicester are two matches that spring to mind. Bruce also demonstrated himself as largely reactive as opposed to proactive in his use of substitutions. What is meant by that, is that he seldom used his subs to change a game, but rather waited for the game to change and then subsequently brought on players.
To his credit, Bruce did eventually (although not entirely) move away from the back 5 to a back 4 and saw an immediate impact. Our best performances of the season were played with this setup.
Steve Bruce summed up this season in one word, “Okay”, and I tend to agree with him. For many who think it’s been terrible, I hear you and there is grounding for your claim. However, I believe that Newcastle finishing 13th and staying up cannot be overlooked given the circumstances. Had I asked you at the start of this season where United would have finished, I am not too sure many would have suggested anything higher than 15th. Yes, the tactics have been poor for the lion’s share of the season and the style has been tedious, but Newcastle are still in the Premier League and have reached their target – one which has been drastically lowered over the past 13 years.
Taking all of this into account, and given the circumstances of the club, Toon Talk gives Steve Bruce a rating of 5.5/10 this season.