Newcastle United’s footballing philosophy, the high press and defensive fragility - what we learned from Steve Bruce in pre-season
Six games. Three wins, two losses and a draw. Questions answered or raised? Here we take a look at what pre-season says about Newcastle United and Steve Bruce.
The high press - and its success
United operated periodically with a high press after the arrival of Graeme Jones at the back end of last season - and to varying degrees of success.
This summer, they’ve done something similar. However, the press seemed to have come back with a bang in the last two visible pre-season games against Burton Albion and Norwich City.
It will come as a surprise to few that Jones came back on the scene - he was up and down from the directors box at St James’ Park on Saturday with fellow coach Ben Dawson - at the Pirelli Stadium.
United won the ball high against the Brewers and did the same at the weekend, as the weaved the web for Norwich to create their own defensive downfall.
It is a system that seems to work against most - it doesn’t against higher quality sides who can manipulate and beat the initial press - and long may it remain.
Miguel Almiron, Joelinton and at times Sean Longstaff were key to this in the opening 45 against the Canaries.
Another easily noticeable factor this summer has been United’s keenness to play out from the back via Freddie Woodman.
ASM and Jonjo Shelvey hold the key to United formation - and here’s why
For a long while now, despite United’s smattering of quality in their side, Allan Saint-Maximin represents Newcastle’s Plan A, Plan B and Plan C in an attacking sense.
And that’s never been clearer than it was against Daniel Farke & Co on Saturday.
When ASM plays, and wants it, United can be an unstoppable counter-attacking force. Without him, they look lacking in cutting edge.
The Frenchman, who looks far from 100% fit, is a threat merely with his presence, as his reputation precedes him. This, even when not on form, creates gaps and spaces for others to exploit. Joe Willock will be hoping to do just that moving forward.
One player who is key to finding ASM, and others, is Jonjo Shelvey. The player rightly has his critics, but he is so crucial to this system, despite his painful inconsistency.
Shelvey brought purpose and intensity - something he needs to deliver EVERY time - on Saturday and proved a stark contrast from ‘tackler and disrupter’ Hayden in the deep pivot.
In this counter-attacking system, Shelvey is the key to unlock the door - and for all his obvious faults, his passing range is what United have missed this summer.
The stark defensive fragility at United - and the need for pace and athleticism in the back three
Steve Bruce wanted Kristoffer Ajer, then Axel Tuanzebe - and now United continue to work their way down their defensive transfer wishlist.
The need to add pace and athleticism to United’s back three is stark.
They have a solid group of Premier League defenders, none of whom possess a whole lot of speed or masses of mobility.
Far from solid, this back three has looked easy to pick holes in. Part of that comes from the midfield, with little to no protection provided against Norwich by the likes of Longstaff and a hulking Hayden.
The transition, and giving the ball away in attack, caused major issues against Norwich and Rotherham. United just didn’t seem to have the legs in midfield to plug gaps and provide adequate cover for those behind them.
Willock will help with that, but a reboot defensively is towards the top of the head coach’s wants - and this pre-season, it’s easy to see why.
Callum Wilson - a concern or a sign of hunger?
Callum Wilson has cut a very angry, frustrated figure on the pitch for Newcastle United - and the joy of Doncaster seems like a million miles away.
At Rotherham the striker was starved of service and made his feelings very clear when wasteful passes or hopeless balls were tossed his way.
He missed the next two encounters against Burton Albion and Burnley, played behind-closed-doors, and was again given nothing but scraps to feed off by United against Norwich City.
It was clear for all 20,000 or so fans at St James’ Park, Wilson was an angry man, as he kicked, pulled and remonstrated his way through an hour against the Canaries.
Is this a positive sign or negative? He looks hungry to me - and that can only be a good thing for the Magpies.
Latecomer to the party - Dwight Gayle ready to prove doubters wrong?
A shock latecomer to the NUFC party in the final week of the pre-season campaign was Dwight Gayle.
The frontman, who penned a new deal at United at the back end of last season, had looked devoid of drive in every outing to Saturday gone - but a fresh, fit, committed and lively Gayle sprung out the blocks.
He chased every lost cause, pressed with speed and intent and, of course most importantly for a goal-getter, hit the back of the net twice - and they were two very smart, instinctive finishes.
Can he right the wrongs of last season, where he looked a long way off his best? Only time will tell on that one. But it is a positive for the head coach that he has a player who at least looks ready for the fight to push talisman Wilson, or others, for a spot in the XI, especially when so many are doubting his credentials.