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Stick or twist? Steve Bruce and Newcastle face moment of truth | Newcastle United

Rip it up and start again? Or sit tight, hold your nerve and keep the faith? In very different ways, Steve Bruce and Mike Ashley must confront the same dilemma as they strive to ensure Newcastle United remain in the Premier League.

If Bruce’s team lose at relegation rivals Brighton on Saturday night, the owner will have a difficult decision to make. Does Ashley sack his manager and hope a new voice reinvigorates a fractured dressing room during the season’s outstanding nine games, or would sticking rather than twisting be the better option?

“Brighton’s a very big game,” Bruce said on Friday. “Both clubs will look at it as a must-win.”

His big dilemma involves whether to abandon the 4-3-1-2 featuring a false nine and split strikers that worked a treat when Miguel Almirón filled the “hole” and, flanked by Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin, bewildered opposition defences.

With that attacking trident sidelined by injury – although Almirón has an outside chance of some involvement at Brighton – this configuration seems deeply unsuited to the available personnel. The 5ft 4in winger Ryan Fraser looked distinctly ersatz in the central striking role as Newcastle drew at home with Aston Villa last Friday, and Dwight Gayle seemed intensely uncomfortable wide on the left.

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The formation appeared almost immediately after Graeme Jones was drafted in from Bournemouth as assistant head coach in late January and swiftly maximised Almirón’s talent. Perhaps significantly, Newcastle’s two wins in their past 19 games have been recorded following Jones’s installation but a configuration bearing his fingerprints does not suit every player.

Ryan Fraser
Ryan Fraser has not always convinced in a central striking role. Photograph: Simon Davies/ProSports/Shutterstock

Jonjo Shelvey’s recent deployment as the formation’s deep-sitting midfield playmaker has necessitated Isaac Hayden’s relocation to the left of a midfield three where the team’s natural anchor is unusually ineffective. Moreover, although Shelvey arguably occupies his optimal position, he blows hot and cold. Might Bruce be selecting a player who can become unhappy when sidelined for political as much as tactical reasons?

That is possibly unfair but the Longstaff brothers, Sean and Matty, may wonder whether Newcastle really are a meritocracy. Both midfielders have slipped out of the first XI equation, with Matty not even making the matchday squad these days. Admittedly the siblings divide opinions among fans and the Arsenal loanee Joe Willock probably deserves to start ahead of them but is the frequently selected Jeff Hendrick really a better option? And what about the versatile, and often incisive, Matt Ritchie who has remained stuck to the bench following a training-ground altercation with Bruce?

Then there is the peculiar case of Christian Atsu. The Ghana winger made well over 100 appearances in a Newcastle shirt before being erased from the first-team picture this season. Bruce’s predecessor, Rafael Benítez, valued his pace and intelligence, not least as an impact substitute. The 29-year-old emerged from the club’s deep freeze to make a rare appearance for the under-23s last week, scoring in a 2-1 defeat at Leeds. Has too little trust been placed in Atsu’s ability?

Bruce knows struggling managers are vulnerable before international breaks but, if Ashley is tempted to make a change during the hiatus before Tottenham visit Tyneside two weeks on Sunday, recent history offers a cautionary tale.

In 2008-09 Alan Shearer took charge for the final eight games but failed to prevent relegation, and in 2015-16 Benítez had 10 matches after succeeding Steve McClaren but still ended up in the Championship.

Five years ago Sam Allardyce, then striving to keep Sunderland in the top tier, privately forecast Benítez, an old enemy, would transform Newcastle but wondered whether Ashley had acted too late.

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West Brom’s current manager predicted the Spaniard’s influence would manifest itself in either Newcastle’s fourth or fifth game under his control – “any earlier would be miraculous,” he said – and indicated Sunderland’s survival hopes could be contingent on that timescale.

Intriguingly, Newcastle collected one point from Benítez’s first four matches and 12 from the subsequent six, finishing one position and two points below 17th-placed Sunderland. The watershed was reached one game too late.

Quite apart from a reluctance to spend £4m paying off Bruce, Ashley – who is taking the Premier League to arbitration in an attempt to facilitate a £300m Saudi Arabia-led Newcastle takeover – must fear that replacing him with Eddie Howe or, more probably, Mark Hughes might prove a forlorn gesture.

Given Benítez’s inside Newcastle knowledge, the one available manager possibly most capable of making a difference at this stage appears the Saudis’ preferred candidate. Football provokes some improbable rapprochements but Benítez and Ashley parted so acrimoniously it seems inconceivable either man would countenance a reunion.

The retail tycoon apparently remains reluctant to dismiss Bruce but nothing is certain. “I always want the best for this club,” Newcastle’s manager said on Friday. “I understand totally that, over the last few months, I haven’t been good enough to get the necessary results but I’ll do my utmost to keep this team in the Premier League. I’ll never walk away.”

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