Rip it up and start over? Or do you sit tight, hold your cool, and keep the faith? Very differently, Steve Bruce and Mike Ashley face the same dilemma as they scramble to keep Newcastle United in the Premier League.
If Bruce’s side lose to relegation rivals Brighton on Saturday night, the owner will have a tough decision to make. Is Ashley sacking her coach and hoping a new voice reinvigorates a fractured locker room for the last nine games of the season, or would sticking rather than twisting be the best option?
“Brighton is a really big game,” Bruce said on Friday. “Both clubs will see this as an unmissable victory.”
His big dilemma is whether to give up the 4-3-1-2 with a false nine and separate forwards which worked a treat when Miguel Almirón filled the “hole” and, flanked by Callum Wilson and Allan Saint -Maximin, baffled the opposition defenses.
With all that attacking trident sidelined by injury – although Almirón has an outside chance of involvement in Brighton – this setup seems deeply unsuited to the staff available. 5-foot-4 winger Ryan Fraser looked distinctly ersatz in the center punch role as Newcastle drew at home with Aston Villa last Friday, and Dwight Gayle looked extremely uncomfortable on the left.
The roster emerged almost immediately after Graeme Jones was recruited from Bournemouth as an assistant head coach at the end of January and quickly maximized Almirón’s talent. Perhaps significantly, both of Newcastle’s wins in their last 19 games have come with Jones’ installation, but a setup with his fingerprints on it isn’t for all players.
Jonjo Shelvey’s recent deployment as the team’s deep midfielder playmaker has necessitated the move of Isaac Hayden to the left of a midfielder three where the team’s natural anchor is unusually ineffective. Also, while Shelvey is arguably in his optimal position, he blows hot and cold. Could Bruce pick a player who can become unhappy when sidelined for political as well as tactical reasons?
It might be unfair, but the Longstaff brothers Sean and Matty may question whether Newcastle really is a meritocracy. Both midfielders escaped the XI’s first equation, with Matty not even making today’s squad these days. Granted, the siblings are divided among fans and Arsenal lender Joe Willock probably deserves to start ahead of them, but is the frequently selected Jeff Hendrick really a better option? And what about the versatile, and often sharp, Matt Ritchie who got stuck on the bench after an altercation on the training ground with Bruce?
Then there is the particular case of Christian Atsu. The Ghanaian winger made more than 100 appearances in a Newcastle shirt before being deleted from the first team photo this season. Bruce’s predecessor, Rafael Benítez, enjoyed his pace and intelligence, especially as an impact substitute. The 29-year-old emerged from the club’s deep frost to make a rare U23 appearance last week, scoring a 2-1 defeat at Leeds. Has too little trust been placed in Atsu’s ability?
Bruce knows struggling managers are vulnerable ahead of international breaks but, if Ashley is tempted to make a change during the break before Tottenham visit Tyneside two weeks on Sunday, recent history offers a cautionary tale.
In 2008-09 Alan Shearer took charge of the last eight games but failed to prevent relegation, and in 2015-16 Benítez played 10 games after taking over from Steve McClaren but still ended up in the championship.
Five years ago Sam Allardyce, then struggling to keep Sunderland in the front row, privately planned that old nemesis Benítez would turn Newcastle but wondered if Ashley had acted too late.
The current West Brom coach predicted that the Spaniard’s influence would show either in the fourth or in the fifth game for Newcastle under his control – “anything sooner would be miraculous,” he said – and indicated that Sunderland’s survival hopes may be dependent on this timescale.
Oddly enough, Newcastle collected one point from Benítez’s first four games and 12 of six, finishing one position and two points beneath 17th-placed Sunderland. The watershed was reached one game too late.
Aside from his reluctance to spend £ 4million to reimburse Bruce, Ashley – who is submitting the Premier League to arbitration in an attempt to facilitate a £ 300million Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle – must fear replacing him with Eddie Howe or, more likely. , Mark Hughes could prove to be a desperate move.
Given Benítez’s internal knowledge at Newcastle, the available manager who is probably the most capable of making a difference at this stage appears to be the Saudis’ preferred candidate. Football provokes unlikely reunions but Benítez and Ashley have separated so acrimoniously that it seems inconceivable that either man would agree to a reunion.
The retail mogul apparently remains reluctant to fire Bruce, but nothing is certain. “I always want the best for this club,” the Newcastle coach said on Friday. “I fully understand that over the last few months I haven’t been good enough to get the results I need but I will do my best to keep this team in the Premier League. I will never go away.