When Steve Bruce found his inner Frank Sinatra on Friday and declared that from now on he was going to do it “my way”, he probably did not have a 3-0 defeat at Arsenal in mind.
The statement also raised the question of, if not his way, then whose method have Newcastle been following given Bruce has been in charge for 18 months.
Perhaps Bruce’s words were designed to provoke a response from his players, but Monday’s loss extended a winless run to nine games and they have only scored once in their past seven.
The 60-year-old said the “gloves would come off” before his team’s trip to Emirates Stadium, but as his players trudged off at the end, they might seek their safety blankets again.
Newcastle are currently seven points clear of the relegation zone, but with pressure from supporters increasing are there signs a new approach will work?
‘Their confidence is shattered’
Newcastle opted for a more positive 4-4-2 formation against the Gunners, but the switch partially helped to demonstrate why Bruce has often opted for a five-man defence – a formation preferred by some of his players despite drawing criticism from many fans.
The first half showed promise and was a vast improvement on the display at Sheffield United where Bruce admitted he got the line-up wrong against the Premier League’s bottom club.
After the break, however, Newcastle’s familiar failings were exposed.
“Their confidence is shattered,” said former England international Karen Carney on Radio 5 Live. “Newcastle have got no mobility in the midfield, they can’t press and haven’t got the pace.”
One of the reasons Bruce and his players often prefer a five-man defence is a lack of cover in midfield.
By switching to a back four, the defence can be further exposed, a point highlighted for Arsenal’s first two goals where they countered quickly while Newcastle struggled to regroup.
And although there were more options in attack, Bruce admitted his team were “lacking quality” in the final third as their quest for goals continues.
There will also be questions as to whether he picked the right team for this game too. Andy Carroll’s partnership with Callum Wilson initially looked promising before the target man tired, while Joelinton was quiet on the left wing. Jonjo Shelvey was also disappointing in central midfield.
“You are only as good as your players – and I feel harsh for saying that about the Newcastle players – but Steve Bruce can only work with what he has got,” added Carney.
“But when Bruce does get the players, he has to put them in the right positions because for me, playing Joelinton on the left didn’t work.”
‘He shows a lack of understanding of the fans’
Bruce has borne the brunt of Newcastle fans’ frustrations for a long time.
His position has not been helped by the failed takeover bid last summer, where supporters hoped that a Saudi Arabian-backed consortium would take control from Mike Ashley.
Many fans blame the owner for Newcastle’s stagnation. While remaining in the Premier League might make a perfect business plan, the seeming lack of ambition to go any further has grated.
Bruce’s record compares favourably to former manager Rafael Benitez – a fan favourite – and the Spaniard was also known for his pragmatic football style.
What the former Liverpool manager offered, though, was hope for the future, according to chairman of the Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust Greg Tomlinson, even if that hope eventually died when he claimed Ashley did not match his ambition.
“If Bruce is sacked, there isn’t going to be a Rafael Benitez-type manager coming in, is there?” says Tomlinson.
“There is always an underlying feeling that under the owner, we are going nowhere, but there also is a genuine feeling that if we get relegated, we won’t get back up straight away like we did with Chris Hughton or Benitez.”
Bruce has had to work within his means and has faced challenges. A coronavirus outbreak impacted a number of players and robbed him of their most exciting player, winger Allan Saint-Maximin.
“Bruce might be realistic about the club, but he shows a lack of understanding about the fans,” said Tomlinson.
“They want a club which strives to get better, that’s what we had with Rafa, Bobby Robson and Hughton. We want hope and pride.
“A lot of fans also feel like the takeover could still happen, but if we get relegated then it might have less chance of happening.”
Time for a change?
Bruce cast a downbeat figure after the final whistle on Monday night.
Criticising the players last week appeared not to work, and former Blackburn and Chelsea striker Chris Sutton told BBC Radio 5 Live it was “unlike” Bruce to take that approach, calling it a “massive risk”.
Former Manchester City and England defender Micah Richards added: “Steve Bruce is a lovely bloke but maybe it is time for him to change – but maybe he can’t change it.
“I just think, no matter what he does, the fans are not going to be happy. The football he plays is not good enough for the fans and he hasn’t got the money to change it around and play expansive football.”
Bruce hopes he can turn Newcastle’s form around and “will not give in”, while there has been little communication from Ashley on whether he will change managers.
But time is running out for Bruce to turn ‘my way’ into the right way as they slip closer to the relegation zone.