As the final whistle blows on perhaps the most unusual football season of all time, it’s safe to say it’s been an eventful one for fans of Newcastle United Football Club. They say the journey is better and more important than the final destination, but some of Newcastle’s performances in the Premier League this season have been as horrific and painful as an actual Final Destination film.
Heavy defeats and hideous displays of football have often been counterbalanced by the genius and talent the likes of Allan Saint-Maximin, Callum Wilson, and Martin Dubravka have all brought to St James’ Park this season. But ahead of this month’s EURO 2020 competition, where we may very well see some Magpies in action, let’s review the season just gone: with 12 wins, 9 draws, 17 losses in the Premier League and more. Side warning for anyone reading on, prepare to relive the PTSD-inducing nightmare of “Bruceball”.
The season got off to perhaps a better start than anyone could have imagined. Newcastle travelled down to London to face fellow relegation candidates West Ham, and emerged 0-2 winners against David Moyes’ Hammers after goals from new arrivals Callum Wilson and Jeff Hendrick. If you were to ask anyone back then which of these two sides were more likely to push for European football, they’d have a different answer to what we have said today.
But besides this, and the occasional good performances against the likes of Everton (Steve Bruce has a league double over Carlo Ancelotti, I hate football too), Spurs, and Burnley, Newcastle’s performances haven’t exactly been something to write home about. Many were quick to dismiss Rafa Benitez’s style of play as conservative and cautious, but the 20/21 season saw Newcastle at times regress in quality so badly, it made Benitez’s style look like Bayern Munich’s.
Two 3-0 thumpings courtesy of Brighton, outclassed by Sheffield United for the Blades’ maiden win of the season, and shaky defensive performances against the likes of Leeds, Man Utd, and Leicester. Conceding 62 goals with goalkeepers and defenders of Newcastle’s quality is a particularly alarming statistic, and damning of Bruce’s tactics as a whole.
When assessing the impact of Newcastle’s transfer activity, it’s a fairly mixed bag. Emil Krafth and Jeff Hendrick have been lambasted by fans and neutrals alike for their presence and poor performance in the team, with the pair being quite possibly the worst ‘right flank’ in the Premier League today. Yet you also have to look at the goalscoring presence Callum Wilson and loanee Joe Willock have brought up to Tyneside from Bournemouth and Arsenal respectively. With a combined 20 goals across all competitions, and with the possibility of Willock becoming a permanent, the duo look to be the key to Newcastle’s survival next season. Although they do also say never to fall in love with a loanee player, they’ll just break your heart in the end, as was the case with Loic Remy, Andros Townsend, and Salomon Rondon in recent years.
Another acquisition from January also made an extraordinary impact, and perhaps unusually, it’s not a player we’re talking about. Graeme Jones, with his experience working at Bournemouth and with the Belgian National Team, was touted to be Bruce’s successor should Mike Ashley and Lee Charnley have felt relegation was imminent. Alas this did not happen, and Jones has since been positioned as an assistant coach. Almost immediately, the 50-year-old influence was shown: Newcastle pushed further up the pitch, they scored more and sat back less. It wasn’t exactly the new generation of the Entertainers, but it was certainly something. When the television cameras panned to the dugout, it was Jones who was seen giving more of the instructions, and clearly he was doing a good job,, as Jones has even been called up to be a part of Gareth Southgate’s entourage for the upcoming EURO 2020 tournament.
So how successful was Newcastle’s season? If we were to compare it to last season, Bruce’s first tenure at the club where he guided the Toon to a 13th placed finish with a record of 11 wins, 11 draws, and 16 losses, then this season was a minor improvement upon the last. More wins but more losses. More goals scored but more goals conceded. Of course this is a similar trend across most of the other teams in the League, not entirely a product of the completely unpredictable nature of Bruceball. The cup runs also felt exactly the same as the season prior: an exit at the earliest stage against strong Premier League opposition (Leicester in 19/20’s League Cup, and Arsenal in the 20/21 FA Cup), and a golden opportunity blown by a dismal on pitch performance late in the other competition (Man City in the 19/20 FA Cup, and Brentford in the 20/21 League Cup). Death, taxes, Newcastle disappointing us all.
So where do Newcastle go from here? How long can they rely on Callum Wilson to score the game winning goals? How many more times will Bruce be bailed out by Martin Dubravka between the sticks? How often will the fans see the only attacking options on the bench are Dwight Gayle and Andy Carroll, two players who had their individual goal tallies matched by Liverpool ‘s goalkeeper Alisson Becker.
The first, and most important decision to be made, is how much to offer Arsenal for the services of Joe Willock. Mikel Arteta has expressed his desire to keep ahold of the midfielder for his future plans, but the 21-year-old’s attacking mentality may be limited in a side which already has the likes of Emile Smith-Rowe in attacking midfield. So the acquisition of the Arsenal man is an absolute must, even if it’s more than the £20m Mike Ashley would be willing to be part with.
A back up striker is also a necessity. Yoshinori Muto is set to return from his loan at Eibar, but it’s been another poor goalscoring season for the Japanese forward as the Spanish outfit were relegated from La Liga. The recent release of youngster Yannick Toure also means Newcastle lack a reliable youth striker to call upon to fill up the numbers, a role we saw the likes of Tom Allan and Elliot Anderson fulfil at times this season. Joelinton may have eclipsed his goal tally from last season, but right now it’s the Callum Wilson show at Newcastle, and he needs more recurring cast members.
Fans may remember how impressive versatile Dutchman Jetro Willems was in his loan stint, albeit one that cruelly cut short by injury back in the 2019/20 season. With Willems’ parent club Eintracht Frankfurt choosing not to renew his contract, the 27-year-old is now a free agent who would boast so much needed depth to Newcastle’s left flank. Speaking of the defence, perhaps the final section of Bruce’s shopping list is a new young centre-back: currently, 27-year-old Jamaal Lascelles is the youngest option available for the Magpies, and he himself has endured a season blighted by injury and fitness concerns. With how fragile and paper thin the squad has been this season, ensuring there is depth is one of the main takeaways from this season just gone.
Overall, it’s the same old story for Steve Bruce’s suffering side: at times facing the drop, at times looking like absolute world beaters. We always hope to progress up the table the next year, and hype ourselves up too much. But the clock is ticking on Steve Bruce’s contract as Newcastle United manager, so who knows, there may be something more positive and uplifting upon the horizon…that’s how karma works, right?