Newcastle’s back-to-basics approach proves effective in late victory over Chelsea
Newcastle aren’t exactly thrilling to watch, but that doesn’t matter for now – though it could become an issue further down the road
There is nothing exotic or innovative about Steve Bruce. He would likely admit that himself. His teams have, for the most part, always been functional, organised, resilient: sides built in the image of their rugged, hard-nosed coach.
His appointment as Rafael Benitez’s successor at Newcastle, then, made sense in many ways. But the reaction was one of scepticism, of disappointment at the club’s apparent lack of ambition. Bruce was a safe choice – a boring one, given the other alternatives.
Many tipped Newcastle for certain relegation. But Bruce, who would be forgiven for feeling slightly smug, has so far confounded his critics – as Saturday night’s unexpected win over Chelsea proved. His side are now seven points clear of the bottom three, unquestionably difficult to play against (particularly at St James’ Park) and have repeatedly showed they’re capable of producing those dogged performances needed to get the job done.
The sticking point, for those still unconvinced by Bruce’s Newcastle, is the manner in which they did it. The hosts had just 30 per cent possession and were, for the most part, content to sit off Chelsea, to soak up pressure and counter attack sporadically.
That is consistent with the Magpies’ approach throughout the season, not just against the Premier League’s top teams. Newcastle’s average possession is by far the lowest in the division – a remarkably low 33.6 per cent, significantly less than the next lowest (Burnley with 40.1 per cent) – but it has proved effective.
They had chances here, too: Joelinton powered a header against the crossbar in the first half, and the last-minute winner was certainly not undeserved.
The issue, though, is that the football is dull. Newcastle are not a spectator-friendly team; they are very rarely entertaining or expansive in any way. The focus, given their almost complete neglect of the ball, is clearly on keeping out the opposition, capitalising on the few moments they have in the opposition’s final third.
This is fine when results are good, and they have been good enough for Bruce so far. But their approach has inevitably made the season feel like a constant struggle. And questions remain over the long-term ambitions and aims of the club.
A hard-fought win against Chelsea is not to be sniffed at. But Bruce will at some point, perhaps months down the line, find supporters demanding more. As Gary Neville said recently on Sky Sports, fans and players are becoming increasingly wary of accepting and buying into passive, standoffish tactics. Progressive coaches, he insisted, are the most desirable in the modern game.
And Newcastle are far more passive and standoffish than most. In the short term, this approach may prove to be the most sensible. Bruce, as Benitez did before him, will simply insist he is working with limited resources, that he does not have players of the quality of many other teams in the league.
In the long term, though, Newcastle have plenty to consider. A 1-0 win over Chelsea is an excellent result. And there were plenty of positives: the performances of Fernandez and Clark; Matt Ritchie filling in admirably at left back; Joelinton looking lively again after ending his long goal drought in the FA Cup last week; the desire to search for a goal so late in the game.
But how long Newcastle can continue to play in this manner depends on the patience of the fans and the club’s future ambitions. At the moment, it seems no one at Newcastle is thinking beyond the next game.
Four other things we learned:
- There were audible groans at St James’ Park as Jetro Willems was stretchered off early in the first half with a nasty looking ankle injury. He is the latest of several Newcastle players likely to face a prolonged spell on the sidelines. Dwight Gayle, Jetro Paul Dummett, Javier Manquillo, Yoshinouri Muto, Fabian Schar and DeAndre Yedlin are all out, too, so Bruce finds himself with a depleted squad.
- Chelsea’s away form has been largely impressive of late, with most of their struggles coming at Stamford Bridge. But they were surprisingly lacklustre here, lacking any real cutting edge or creativity. Tammy Abraham was unusually wasteful, while Willian and Callum Hudson-Odoi were mostly ineffective.
- Chelsea were rarely at their fluid best here, but the performance of young right back Reece James will have pleased Frank Lampard. The 20-year-old impressed against Burnley last week, too, and already looks an accomplished attacking full back. His marauding forward runs and clever interplay caused Newcastle constant problems.
- There was excitement from a Newcastle perspective when it was confirmed that Allan Saint-Maximin would be fit enough to start against Chelsea. The 22-year-old has been a standout performer for the Magpies this season, bringing some much-needed flair and excitement. But he was a little off the pace after over a month out.