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Opinion: 377 days in, does Bruce even know his best Newcastle XI?

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Ever since arriving at St James’ Park Steve Bruce has chopped and changed his starting eleven, sometimes out of necessity due to Newcastle’s persistent injury issues, on other occasions because the tactics simply weren’t proving effective. But after 377 days at the helm in the northeast, does the manager truly know his first choice eleven? Or even his preferred formation?

There have been five instances throughout the season where Bruce’s switch has either badly backfired or produced the desired result, and they are worth looking back at.

On just the second day of the campaign against Norwich City, Newcastle were hammered 3-1 by the newly-promoted side who would go on to finish bottom of the division. For the encounter, Bruce decided to opt for an attacking 3-5-2 formation reminiscent of Rafael Benitez’s preferred system but with Miguel Almiron, alongside Joelinton upfront. Needless to say, the results were hideous with both forwards proving to be woefully ineffective alongside one another, and neither mustered a single shot on target.

For the next match against Tottenham Hotspur, Bruce knew he had to react and did so by making the system drastically more defensive. There was a noticeable switch to five defenders, and Almiron dropped back into the midfield, leaving Joelinton to operate as a lone striker. Newcastle were painful to watch in attack as the Brazilian was left isolated, but somehow managed to grab his first Premier League goal with a neat touch to tee up a low drive. However, at the back, the Magpies were rock solid limiting Spur to two shots on target from 17 efforts. The performance reeked of smash and grab, but it would come to be the blueprint for much of the season.

Eventually, Bruce realised the system was limiting Newcastle in forward areas, so he trialled a 4-2-3-1 against Leicester City, and the result was ugly. The Foxes dismantled Newcastle 5-0, which was not helped by Isaac Hayden’s red card. Even so, the Magpies were never in the game and Bruce knew he had to revert to old means.

Just as it had done against Spurs, the 5-4-1 formation produced a dogged display and a 1-0 victory over Manchester United in the next encounter. Matty Longstaff’s debut goal was the only notable moment of an otherwise dour display, but the defence held firm to register yet another clean sheet.

That was how Newcastle continued for much of the campaign. Bruce appeared resigned to the fact that the only way to keep the opposition out was to play five defenders, even if it stunted the Magpies’ attack.

Eventually, Bruce got brave again after Newcastle failed to score in four consecutive matches and reverted to a back four against Southampton. Helped by a red card the Magpies recorded a 1-0 win and the manager has primarily stuck with the system since March.

The one time 4-2-3-1 has appeared to be an overwhelming success was the 4-1 victory over A.F.C Bournemouth, Allan Saint-Maximin starred racking up a trio of assists, and Newcastle notched seven shots on target.

However, that would prove to be the Toon’s last win of the season, ending the campaign with two points from six games. It seems after serially altering with the line-up Bruce has been left stuck with two options. Either shut up shop with a 5-4-1 and hope Newcastle can grab a goal on the counter. Or stay wide open at the back with a four-man defence and create plenty of opportunities further forward.

Bruce has had a year to tinker with this team, and despite guiding Newcastle to safety, he appears no closer to knowing his best formation than when he started. It is not a case of tactical flexibility as both systems have obvious deficiencies and he must decide on a system and the players who fit heading into next season.

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