Steve Bruce invokes siege mentality to navigate the Newcastle storm

Louise Taylor on 24 August 2019

At first glance, Steve Bruce remains on the affable side of polite and even makes a couple of jokes but it does not take long to establish that inside he is hurt and angry. Within minutes of taking a seat Newcastle’s manager is discussing the need to preserve “dignity” in the face of “insulting” criticism, life in the eye of “a storm” and his perceived tactical ignorance.

As a welcome and long-awaited August sun streams through an open window before 9am everything seems deceptively benign at the club’s suburban training base yet as words including “crisis”, “lies” and “siege mentality” tumble from Bruce’s mouth it is clear such apparent serenity is illusory.

“I’m the manager who sends the team out to play with no formation and no tactics, who makes the wrong substitutions,” he says sarcastically, as, following two admittedly concerning defeats, Rafael Benítez’s old side prepare to visit Tottenham on Sunday. “We can’t even take a warm-up properly … it’s been relentless. Some of it’s fabricated lies but we’re in a storm and you just have to keep your dignity and make sure you’re strong enough to see it through.”

Bruce has swiftly discovered that, even in the kindest light, he is regarded as a very poor man’s Benítez. Although we are only two Premier League games – and, for Newcastle, zero points – into the new campaign many supporters delight in contrasting his every failed manoeuvre with a “Rafa masterstroke”.

This partly explains why in one breath Bruce says: “It’s too early for soul-searching,” but in the next spells out the need for contingency measures. “We’re going to have to have a siege mentality,” he says. “The expectations, the fabric, of a big club like this means you have to perform. Nobody’s under the relentless spotlight more than us at the minute. The only way we can turn the thing round is with good performances – and results.”

It is an easy prescription to articulate but much harder to administer – especially going into seven potentially season-defining days also featuring Wednesday’s League Cup tie against Leicester and Saturday’s must-win league fixture against Watford, both at home. “It’s a big, big week,” agrees Bruce, who must arguably decide whether to continue building his team around Jonjo Shelvey in a 3-5-2 formation or follow Benítez’s example and possibly deem the playmaker dispensable while shifting to 3-4-3.

“Of course, you’ve got to get the team’s balance right but Jonjo Shelvey’s a very good footballer,” he says. “Jonjo can play in a couple of positions so I don’t see him as a problem.”

Unfortunately Newcastle’s manager created considerable difficulty for himself by screaming “what’s happening?” from the technical area against Arsenal on the opening weekend, as the apparently confused Eintracht Frankfurt loanee Jetro Willems stepped off the bench and into central midfield before swiftly being relocated to left wing-back as tactical anarchy briefly prevailed. By way of exacerbating the pain, Willems made the error prefacing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scoring the game’s only goal.

Worse followed at Carrow Road last Saturday. Not only did Norwich canter to a 3-1 win but Paul Dummett commented: “From the warm-up, it wasn’t right.” No matter that the defender was referring to the collective attitude of his team; in the eyes of Bruce’s detractors this offered conclusive, damning proof of the manager’s ineptitude and strategic inarticulacy.

If he could desperately do with Joelinton, his new £40m Brazilian striker, finding his shooting boots – not to mention gelling with the £20m Miguel Almirón – he also craves a fit Sean Longstaff. The midfielder, pursued by Manchester United all summer, ranks among England’s finest young players but has recently returned from five months out nursing a torn cruciate ligament.

Fears of a setback led to the decision to start him on the bench at Norwich. “Sean’s had a nasty injury and over the last few weeks his knee’s been sore and his movement not as fluid as you’d like,” says the manager. “I’ve got to protect him a little bit.”

Right now, though, Bruce looks like a man in urgent need of a bodyguard of his own.

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