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Q&A: Where is it all going wrong for Steve Bruce’s Newcastle?

Newcastle find themselves once again peering anxiously over their shoulders at the Premier League precipice.

The Magpies are without a win in nine games in all competitions and have collected just two of the last 21 points they have contested to pile the pressure on head coach Steve Bruce.

Here, the PA news agency takes a look at some of the issues at St James’ Park.

Just how bad is Newcastle’s form?

By any standards, poor.

Monday night’s tame 3-0 defeat at Arsenal means they have not won a game in any competition since they edged past struggling West Brom on December 12, a sequence which includes a dismal 1-0 Carabao Cup quarter-final defeat at Sky Bet Championship Brentford and an abject performance as they became the first side this season to a lose a top-flight game to Sheffield United.

More worryingly, they have scored only one goal in almost 11 hours of football.

Where have the goals gone?

Callum Wilson’s £20million summer capture from Bournemouth was designed to address a long-standing shortage of goals and eight in his first 13 appearances, albeit four of them from the penalty spot, represented an encouraging start. However, he last found the back of the net on December 19.

In total, the Magpies have managed just 18 league goals in as many games with midfielder Jeff Hendrick the only man other than Wilson to have managed more than one – and he has just two.

Four domestic cup matches have yielded a further nine goals, seven of them at League Two Morecambe, where Joelinton scored two of his three to date for the season.

What has caused the drought?

Allan Saint-Maximin has been sorely missed since he tested positive for Covid-19
Allan Saint-Maximin has been sorely missed since he tested positive for coronavirus (Peter Powell/PA)

The question Bruce has been desperately trying to address for several weeks.

There is little doubt the prolonged absence of Allan Saint-Maximin, whose struggle to shake off the after-effects of coronavirus is ongoing, has been the most significant factor.

Without the mercurial Frenchman, Newcastle lack both pace and devilment, and their ability to hit teams on the counter-attack – seemingly their weapon of choice – has been all but negated as a result.

Miguel Almiron showed flashes of the direct approach which characterised his early months on Tyneside at Arsenal, but he has endured a frustrating start to the season, while record signing Joelinton is yet to justify even a fraction of the £40million the club invested in him during the summer of 2019.

In short, Wilson cannot be accused of missing chances because there have been precious few chances to miss.

Is Bruce to blame for the slump?

Newcastle head coach Steve Bruce is struggling to find the right blend
Newcastle head coach Steve Bruce is struggling to find the right blend (Adam Davy/PA)

Yes and no, but increasingly yes. The budget constraints imposed by owner Mike Ashley have tempered the recruitment plans of successive managers – and Ashley could certainly ask pertinent questions about the way in which some of the cash he has released has been spent – and the current squad is reflective of that.

Bruce’s predecessor Rafael Benitez decided with the players at his disposal to adopt a conservative approach which was rarely easy on the eye, but proved productive.

Bruce has attempted to adapt that, tinkering with a five-man defence in a bid to play a more progressive brand of football – a ploy which has sporadically paid short-term dividends.

However, Newcastle currently appear to be caught between two stools on the pitch, passive out of possession, incoherent and negligent on the ball and ultimately porous in defence – a fatal combination.

Are Newcastle in relegation trouble?

Not yet, but they will be very shortly if they do not pull out of their tailspin.

They are currently seven points clear of the relegation zone, but that gap was 11 points a matter of days ago and bottom three Sheffield United – at their expense – West Brom and Fulham have all added to their tallies since Newcastle last did.

Levels of optimism outside the dressing room are far from high ahead of Saturday’s rearranged trip to Aston Villa and Leeds’ visit to the north-east three days later with Everton waiting in the wings.

How long can this continue?

Newcastle owner Mike Ashley left it to late to turn to Rafael Benitez in 2016
Newcastle owner Mike Ashley left it to late to turn to Rafael Benitez, pictured, in 2016 (Owen Humphreys/PA)

The question Ashley needs to answer for himself.

He – or at least the people to whom he delegates such decisions – left it too late to ask first Alan Shearer and then Benitez to attempt to stave off relegation in 2009 and 2016 and ultimately paid the price – a point already raised by concerned supporters.

Bruce’s mandate from the owner is simply to keep the club in the Premier League as he attempts to sell up – and that is another tale altogether.

As long as Newcastle stay out of trouble, he will be safe. The closer they are to being dragged into the thick of the mix at the bottom, the greater the need for the owner to make a decision.

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