The goalkeeper question, defensive rejig and system change - Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United dilemmas

Freddie Woodman of Newcastle United fails to save a shot from Bruno Fernandes of Manchester United as he scores their side’s third goal during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford on September 11, 2021 in Manchester, England.Freddie Woodman of Newcastle United fails to save a shot from Bruno Fernandes of Manchester United as he scores their side’s third goal during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford on September 11, 2021 in Manchester, England.
Freddie Woodman of Newcastle United fails to save a shot from Bruno Fernandes of Manchester United as he scores their side’s third goal during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford on September 11, 2021 in Manchester, England. | Getty Images
Newcastle United face Leeds United in the Premier League on Friday night looking to end a run of five matches without victory. Our writer Liam Kennedy takes a look at three key dilemmas facing head coach Steve Bruce prior to the St James’ Park meeting.

Things are never straight-forward at Newcastle United - and 2021/22 is doing nothing to disprove that well-worn theory.

Five games into the campaign and the storm clouds are long past the swirling in the distance stage. It’s batten down the hatches stuff already at St James’ Park.

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Four defeats, one of which came on penalties in the Carabao Cup, and a home draw with Southampton is all the Magpies have to show for their opening month of the season and while takeover talk distracts less and less, the focus on Steve Bruce, with all his limitations, public clangers and tactical struggles, is sharp in focus of many fans.

Relegation talk sweeps through Tyneside - and Bruce, for now, is the only man who can dampen that negativity, starting with the visit of Leeds United on Friday.

Here’s three dilemmas facing the head coach ahead of the visit of Marcelo Bielsa & Co.

The goalkeeper question - out with the new and in with the old?

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Prior to Saturday it was tough to say Freddie Woodman had done anything to warrant being taken out of the Newcastle United team, and to be honest it still feels a little harsh to really put the heat on a lad playing his first games in the Premier League.

However, it is also fair to say he was poor for the first two goals against Manchester United, as well as the first against Southampton. Are these slight errors becoming more common? Maybe.

I think he is a top keeper, but has been thrown in at the deep end. It is sink or swim time - and that’s no environment for developing a young, top flight-inexperienced player.

With Karl Darlow now seemingly fit, could it be the right time to turn to the more experienced player? Needs must for United, with points scarce and Bruce may feel Darlow offers him a safer option between the sticks. But will that come to the detriment of Woodman, who has the potential to far surpass Darlow’s ability, according to those who know better in this department?

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It’s a big call for Bruce, especially as Darlow proved last season he too is no absolute substitute for the absent Martin Dubravka.

Stick or twist? It feels like the decision may have far-reaching consequences, well beyond just a one-game goalkeeping call.

Defensive rejig - personnel changes assessed

If United continue with the three, the question needs to be asked whether the personnel is right in key positions?

Federico Fernandez and Fabian Schar are far superior defenders to all three of the players named in the back three at Old Trafford, so a case must be made to see at least one of those back in the unit.

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Should Paul Dummett be declared fit enough, he too must also be considered.

Ciaran Clark struggled again against Manchester United and this surely can’t have been lost on Bruce and his coaches. This is a continuing trend when it comes to the Irishman, one he is struggling to break.

Freddie Woodman of Newcastle United leads his side out prior to the Premier League match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford on September 11, 2021 in Manchester, England. Freddie Woodman of Newcastle United leads his side out prior to the Premier League match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford on September 11, 2021 in Manchester, England.
Freddie Woodman of Newcastle United leads his side out prior to the Premier League match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford on September 11, 2021 in Manchester, England. | Getty Images

The system - can it still work?

United don’t look defensively solid enough despite, on paper, naming five defenders.

Is it the system, the players or the approach at fault? It’s probably a bit of both.

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I’d like to see a return to a four-man defence, but should Bruce persist with this approach, one United worked on all summer, then they need to get to grips with the other two factors. The right players need selected to complement said system, and gaps plugged in the approach, as this 5-3-2 looks rather porous.

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