The latest indicator of the bat-sh*t nature of this season: Steve Bruce is our early winner on consecutive weekends.
Three and a half weeks ago, the Newcastle boss declared his side ‘frigging hopeless… absolutely sh*te’ after they become the first team this season to roll over and have their tummies tickled by Sheffield United. It was a new nadir for his Newcastle side, one which it was assumed – or hoped, in the case of vast swathes of the Toon Army – would be the final nail in Bruce’s coffin.
Seething at Bramall Lane, Bruce threw down the gauntlet to his squad and vowed to “do it my way” from then on. The players who, if they wanted to, only had to continue what they weren’t doing to see off the manager. But Bruce’s fighting talk certainly appears to have struck a chord with this set of Magpies.
Twenty-five days after showing how bad things can be, twice in eight days, Newcastle have offered tantalising glimpses of what Bruce’s side are capable of.
They were hugely impressive in the win at Everton last week but today’s triumph against Southampton alone demonstrated how good they can be across the areas that really matter.
In the first half against Ralph Hasenhuttl’s reeling Saints, Newcastle were threatening on the front foot and while the calamitous visitors offered them more than a helping hand, the Toon showed a potency in attack rarely seen at St James’ Park under this manager and a few before him.
The hosts scored three first-half goals for the first time since October 2015. Allan Saint-Maximin’s inclusion had a lot to do with that. The thrilling winger, in the starting XI for the first time since November, terrorised a Saints side already licking their wounds following their Old Trafford capitulation. Jan Bednarek was given a reprieve from his red card against Manchester United, but when he was skinned by Saint-Maximin on the left after a quarter of an hour, the Polish defender might have wished the FA had taken a dimmer view. Saint-Maximin could have gone for goal himself, but he opted to pull the ball back for Joe Willock, who netted his first Newcastle goal on his first start.
Bednarek must really have wished for the weekend off when he diverted in Newcastle’s second goal 10 minutes later. Perhaps in sympathy for the defender, the strike was awarded to Miguel Almiron, who was rather more deserving of the Premier League’s goodwill.
Almiron was the beneficiary of more generosity in the final seconds of the first half when Alex McCarthy and Ryan Bertrand combined to allow the Paraguayan a free run at goal and safe passage for the ball inside the near post.
It was just reward for Almiron’s graft. Which was never more evident than in the second half. But in the first period, Almiron proved what he can do when played in a central role rather than starting from the right.
Bruce’s sceptics may be entitled to question why Almiron is only now playing in his preferred position but the No.10 offered Newcastle a fine balance playing off Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson. With this front three, Newcastle can get the ball forward using any method they wish and chances are, it will stick.
Unless they are playing with nine men, which is what they had to do for the final 17 minutes.
It could not be Newcastle – Bruce’s or anyone else’s – without some attempt being made to shoot themselves in the foot. And after half-time, the Magpies took aim at each one of their talons.
They wasted a wonderful opportunity to put Saints out of sight; watched on as James Ward-Prowse curled in a 30-yard worldie; and then, having already lost two players to injury – Wilson and Javier Manquillo – in the first period, Jeff Hendrick earned himself the daftest of second yellow cards to deplete their ranks further still. All this within four minutes of the restart.
But rather than unravel, Newcastle dug in with the kind of resilience a team can usually only demonstrate when everyone from the manager down is pulling in the same direction. Especially when Fabian Schaar, so impressive in recent weeks, was carried from the field to leave only nine Magpies on the field for the final 17 minutes.
Their rearguard effort, in a 4-4-0 formation, was every bit as thrilling as the attacking display which gave them an advantage to cling to. Almiron never stopped; Willock, a self-professed ‘box-to-boxer’ showed how he can defend his own after earlier penetrating the opponents’; and even Joelinton got in the way, which on this rare occasion is intended as a compliment.
Behind them, the patchwork back four already depleted before kick-off, refused to be beaten. Hasenhuttl should be seething on the 320-mile return journey home having seen his attack, featuring new boy Takumi Minamino, fail to breach a defence featuring three full-backs and a midfielder. That isn’t Bruce’s concern. Though, obviously, he still has a few of his own.
As was evident in the home defeat to Crystal Palace, sandwiched between Newcastle’s only two victories in 14 games, there is still much for Newcastle to improve upon. Against opponents prepared to sit in during midweek, the worry was how little they reaped from their first domination of possession this season.
Their next opponent, Chelsea, won’t impose that burden upon Newcastle. They have nine days to get Wilson and some defenders fit for the trip to Stamford Bridge. But because of the spark provided by today’s front three; some much-needed dynamism behind them; and the resilience of the Toon rearguard, Bruce can approach a trip to the Bridge with some unfamiliar optimism.