It takes a big man to admit his mistakes, and Steve Bruce is a big man.
“For the foreseeable future, the team will play, unfortunately, the way we have to set up: that’s to defend deep and hopefully play on the counterattack,” Bruce said before Newcastle United’s 1-0 win over Manchester United earlier this month. “That’s going to be our identity because that’s the only way we can play. The times I’ve tried to change us, it hasn’t really worked.”
Deducing that attackers like Miguel Almiron are better serviced with more – or at least some – creativity behind them probably should have happened sooner for a manager who was already 79 days into his Newcastle tenure and has now overseen 401 Premier League matches. But at least, belatedly, Bruce got there.
Almiron hasn’t scored or assisted in 19 Newcastle appearances, but the Paraguayan’s raw pace and trickery can be utilized now that Bruce has reinstated the counterattack molded by his predecessor, Rafa Benitez. The changes aren’t revolutionary and are predominantly in defense, yet they have the potential to lift Almiron nearer to his Atlanta United form.
There is now attacking support from the full-backs. Bruce bravely redeployed DeAndre Yedlin against Manchester United and Chelsea despite the American not starting a match for six months and lacking the conservatism of his rival right-backs, Emil Krafth and Javier Manquillo. While Yedlin does offer pace defensively – something that was helpful when he faced United’s Daniel James, although he was admittedly run ragged by Callum Hudson-Odoi on Saturday – he’s primarily an option to double up with Almiron in attack and stretch the opposition by maintaining a wide position.
Yedlin’s touches vs. Chelsea:
Bruce sought balance when reassessing his personnel and shape. Jetro Willems, another forward-thinking player, is Yedlin’s equivalent on the left. Together, the advancing full-backs help connect the rest of the lineup with the attacking triumvirate of Almiron, Joelinton, and Allan Saint-Maximin.
The central defensive trio also appears more stable with Ciaran Clark in its ensemble. Clark can perform the last-ditch defending duties of the man he replaced, Paul Dummett, but his comfort in possession also compensates for the long-term absence of Florian Lejeune. Fabian Schar was the only remaining defensive regular capable of breaking lines with his distribution from the back and carrying the ball upfield, but Clark has relieved some of that burden from the Swiss.
In recent weeks, much of the attention on Tyneside was taken by the Longstaff brothers in midfield, but they’re not the main reasons for the gradual improvements at Newcastle.
Instead, the biggest difference has been Bruce’s retooled back-five, which is more adept at instigating counters with a crisp pass than the deep block and aimless clearances that preceded it. In the past, Almiron was sometimes saddled with starting his own attacks, but these small adjustments to the defense should make his life a little easier.
“His work rate and his effort and endeavor and what he gives the team is there for everyone to see. We just need to give him a goal,” Bruce said about Almiron in the wake of Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Chelsea.
“When you’re a forward player you need to score, and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Poor weekend for VAR
Once again, football’s pursuit of perfection ended with confusion, anger, and a blemished slate of matches.
Watford had a clear penalty overlooked, Dele Alli’s equalizer was deemed legal despite the ball clearly striking his bicep, and there were glitches on the big screen at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. There was a soft spot-kick at Molineux, but also several overlooked penalty calls elsewhere. Chris Wood was unfortunate to see a leveler chalked off against Leicester City. Conor Hourihane had a fantastic hit harshly ruled out after a long delay at Villa Park. And, Jurgen Klopp was apoplectic at VAR’s influence over Liverpool’s 1-1 draw at Manchester United.
Think about it. What were the reasons that you fell in love with football? Slow-motion replays, frozen images, and referees waiting for other people to make their decisions only detract from the aspects that had you hooked.
More racism shame
An FA Cup tie was abandoned on Saturday when Yeovil Town fans were accused of racially abusing Haringey Borough players, with goalkeeper Valery Douglas Pajetat and defender Coby Rowe among those allegedly singled out for egregious treatment.
UEFA’s limp protocols regarding racism were rightly criticized during the international break, but England manager Gareth Southgate was correct to turn the attention closer to home following the disgraceful events in Bulgaria. Britain’s fight against racism has barely begun.
“Sadly, because of their experiences in our own country, they are hardened to racism,” Southgate shared on how his players are depressingly used to the abuse. “I don’t know what that says about our society but that’s the reality. It actually saddens me.”
Griffin Park hosts a classic in final season
Griffin Park has housed Brentford for 115 years and is the only English football ground boasting a pub on each corner. Sadly, the old abode will close its doors for good at the end of this season – but it still has some stories to tell.
Brentford were 2-0 down to Millwall late in Saturday’s match, but Joshua Dasilva halved the deficit after 84 minutes and the Bees leveled when Bryan Mbeumo’s strike ricocheted into the top corner. The sensational comeback – an early candidate for the greatest of the 2019-20 English season – was then completed when winger-turned-striker Ollie Watkins scored from close range in the 94th minute.
Brentford have been one of the most entertaining and well-run teams outside the Premier League for the past few years, but promotion from the Championship continues to be elusive.