Newcastle United have been flying since the resumption of the Premier League, with the Magpies collecting eight points from four matches, along with recording their biggest win of the season in the 4-1 thrashing of A.F.C Bournemouth.
Steve Bruce did some experimenting with his lineup that evening against the Cherries, and it is safe to say one of his tests paid fruition.
Until his injury just before half time, Sean Longstaff made a blistering start to proceedings in a notably more advanced role. The homegrown central midfielder operated more as a playmaker in behind Dwight Gayle and capitalised on the opportunity by pulling strings. The 22-year-old was rewarded with his first goal of the campaign, an empathic strike through a group of bodies after Allan Saint-Maximin cut a cross back from the by-line. After the match, the Frenchman revealed he had told Longstaff to get into that position before kick-off, and the pair displayed terrific chemistry when operating closer together.
All too often this term Newcastle have operated on the counter-attack, highlighted by their average of 41.9 percent possession. When opting for a more reactive style, Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron often receive the ball inside their half and immediately get their heads down to charge forwards, using their pace and dribbling prowess. Between them, the pair have averaged six dribbles per match but once they’ve broken into the opposition final third, they are often left isolated and have failed to consistently convert chances singlehandedly, with seven combined goals, as per WhoScored.
Although, with Longstaff marshaling the midfield in advanced areas, Newcastle had multiple options in attack and were not reliant on Jonjo Shelvey releasing either winger with long balls over the top of the opposition defence. The switch by Bruce paid instant dividends, with the typically goal-shy Magpies scoring twice in the opening half an hour. Furthermore, before he was forced to withdraw with a hamstring injury, Longstaff completed his passes with a flawless 100 percent accuracy.
The English midfielder has struggled to impact proceedings at times this season, highlighted by his average match rating of 6.38, the lowest of any player to have started at least ten matches, as per WhoScored. However, with a minor alteration to his position, Bruce may have discovered the key to unlocking Longstaff’s potential, but the real test will come against sides at the upper end of the table. Still, the signs from the Cherries encounter are incredibly positive.
Bournemouth have of course been struggling since the resumption of the Premier League, failing to secure a single point since the top-flight’s return. Nevertheless, there were progressive signs for Bruce that he may have finally found a solution that leaves Newcastle as a less one-dimensional outfit.
Playing the academy graduate further forward gives the Magpies greater unpredictability, and the strategy must be implemented once more when he has returned from injury.