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Newcastle United: Life with and without Rafa Benitez

On the 30 July 2019, Champions League-winning manager, Rafael Benitez, parted ways with Newcastle United. Outrage was sparked in the North-East amongst supporters of the Magpies. In Benitez, Newcastle had a manager capable of getting the best out of his players. Regardless of how poor the quality of their side was, Benitez gave security to Newcastle United fans that he would be able to maintain their Premier League status every year since they were promoted back to England’s top-flight.

His predecessor ex-Sunderland manager, Steve Bruce. The outrage was heightened amongst fans with this appointment. Benitez had won some of the most prestigious trophies in club football. This included a Champions League with Liverpool. He is also widely regarded as one of the best tacticians in football. On the other hand, Steve Bruce’s highest league finish in the Premier League was tenth, with both Birmingham and Sunderland. However, has Bruce’s criticism been warranted, or has he proved his doubters wrong and successfully filled Benitez’s boots?

This article will be a tactical analysis of the tactics of both managers, in the form of a scout report, analysing Newcastle in the 2018/2019 season, and the 2019/20 season, in order to see the key tactical differences, strengths, and weaknesses of Newcastle over the course of the season. By the end, the reader can make their own mind up as to whether Bruce has improved Newcastle since arriving.

Formations, line-ups, and styles of play:

Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle generally set up in a 5-4-1 formation for the majority of the 2018/19 season. The formation rarely changed as it suited the squad’s players and disguised their flaws.

Comparing Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez's Newcastle sides - tactical analysis tactics

In this image, Newcastle’s 5-4-1 shape can be seen. This was the shape they sat and defended in with their low block. As they were a very defensive side under Benitez, they were in this shape for the majority of their matches.

Martin Dubravka has been a mainstay for Newcastle in goal under both managers. Benitez’s most used back five consisted of; DeAndre Yedlin, Federico Fernandez, Fabian Schar, Jamaal Lascelles, and Matt Ritchie. When fit, Florian Lejeune also started for them, or else Paul Dummett.

Benitez’s double-pivot was usually Mohammed Diame and Isaac Hayden, however, Sean Longstaff was later a regular starter in the heart of Newcastle’s midfield. Ayoze Perez and Miguel Almiron were deployed on the flanks, drifting inside, to support the lone striker, Salomon Rondon.

In contrast with Benitez, Bruce also set his Newcastle team up in a 5-4-1 shape for most of the season.

Comparing Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez's Newcastle sides - tactical analysis tactics

Here, we can see the 5-4-1 shape of Newcastle under Steve Bruce’s management. It is very similar to that of Benitez’s, only the defensive block is pushed slightly further up the field. Dubravka remained in the net. However, the backline was slightly different. Bruce’s most used
back five this season has been; Yedlin, Fernandez, Lascelles, Dummett, and loanee, Jetro Willems at left wing-back.

The double-pivot was generally rotated between Longstaff, Hayden, and Jonjo Shelvey. New exciting arrival, Allan Saint-Maximin, played on the left-wing, with Almiron maintaining his spot on the right-wing. Newcastle opted to take a risk and sign Hoffenheim striker Joelinton in the transfer window, as opposed to re-signing Rondon, so Joelinton predominantly led the Newcastle forward line, occasionally rotating with Andy Carroll and Dwight Gayle.

With regards to the style of play, Newcastle were very similar across both seasons, under the two managers. The style was not particularly offensively aggressive. Both styles were very direct and relied on pumping balls up to their respective target men. Under Rafa, Newcastle had a higher share of long passes per game with 17.04%, in comparison to 12.86% under Bruce.

Defensive structures:

Under Rafa, Newcastle were a very defensive-minded side. Benitez has always had a reputation for being a very pragmatic and tactically brilliant coach. At Newcastle, it was no different. His football was not easy on the eye, but for a side who lacked a serious amount of quality, his football was perfectly suited.

In his defensive 5-4-1 low block, the midfield four were very compact. This was to limit the space in the central areas that their opponents had to play through. The midfield was a chain midfield also. This meant that when one player pushed across or stepped out, the three other midfielders would have to make up the ground to maintain the chain link.

Comparing Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez's Newcastle sides - tactical analysis tactics

This footage was taken from a 2-1 win over the then-champions, Man City. Christian Atsu is closing down Man City’s fullback, Kyle Walker. The rest of the Newcastle midfield are pushing across in a chain to ensure that there are no gaps left behind Atsu for City to play
through. If the midfield did not close the gap as a collective unit, De Bruyne would be able to drop into the space left by Atsu. Instead, Walker is forced to play out wide.

The plan behind the compact midfield line was to force the opposition out wide. This was for a number of tactical reasons, such as that the opposition may have been poor in the wide areas, etc. However, the main reason was that Newcastle liked to set pressing traps in the wide areas.

They would force the opposition to play out wide. Newcastle then would surround the inside advanced option with their ball-near winger, central midfielder, wide centre-back and central centre-back.

Comparing Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez's Newcastle sides - tactical analysis tactics

This pressing trap was particularly effective against teams that like to use the halfspaces, such as Man City as can be seen in the image above. City’s advanced midfielders tend to drift into the halfspaces to create a triangle with their winger and fullback. Once the advanced inside passing option received the ball, Newcastle would pounce on him, hoping to turn-over possession and counter.

Newcastle typically allowed the opposition to build out from the back with minimal pressure. Once they got to the half-way line, Newcastle would fully drop back into their low block. In this structure, they allowed the opponents to circulate the ball around the backline. Against big sides especially, Benitez instructed his centre-forward, usually Rondon, to drop off and mark the opposition’s single-pivot. The line of engagement was with the pivot. Once the ball was played into the opposing pivot player, Rondon would engage in a press.

Comparing Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez's Newcastle sides - tactical analysis tactics

In this footage, Rondon can be seen tracking the run of Fernandinho, City’s midfield pivot. This was to block off his passing lane and limit the ball supply to him.

For Steve Bruce’s Newcastle, they tended to press the ball a little higher than Benitez’s side, albeit not by much. Joelinton, instead of sitting on the opposing midfield pivot, would cover shadow him. He would press high on the centre-back with the ball, angling his run to force the man to play the ball out wide. Whilst doing this he would also cover shadow the passing lane into the opposition’s single-pivot player. This can be seen in the following image;

Comparing Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez's Newcastle sides - tactical analysis tactics

Here, Joelinton is cover shadowing Fred. If the ball still manages to make its way to the pivot, the ball-near central midfielder would be tasked with closing him down.

Bruce preferred this strategy as he is also putting pressure on the opposition’s centre-backs to make a pass. This could cause them to rush a pass and commit and unforced error for Newcastle to capitalise on. It is also effective in forcing the opposition long or backward as the centre-backs don’t have enough time to pick a sensible pass.

Under Bruce, the 5-4-1 was not used as many times as it was with Benitez’s side in 2018/19. The 5-4-1 was used only twenty times under Bruce in the Premier League. In the other eighteen matches, he deployed a variety of formations, mainly a 5-3-2 and a 4-4-2. The 4-4-2 formation was only predominantly used for when Newcastle played teams roughly around their ability level.

When Newcastle used this formation, they would press teams quite high. Bruce uses a man-oriented pressing system with Newcastle when they play more beatable sides. The front two in this system are very important in their high press. The following image is an example of the man-oriented pressing system used by Newcastle last season in their 4-4-2 shape;

Comparing Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez's Newcastle sides - tactical analysis tactics

Their front two have to work extremely hard in the press. The ball-near centre-forward closes down the centre-back on the ball, forcing him to play the ball out wide. The ball-far centre-forward of the front two has to drop and mark the pivot. When the opposition plays the ball out wide, it is a trigger for their wingers to begin pressing the fullback.

The defensive plan under Bruce is very similar to that of Benitez’s plan. Bruce wants Newcastle to force the opposition into the wide areas. He feels that they are much stronger at defending in the wide areas than they are at defending through the central areas. He also has very talented wide players in Saint-Maximin and Almiron, so when Newcastle win the ball in the wide areas, they can easily access their wingers and try to counter the opponent.

Another reason both managers tried to force the opposition wide was because Newcastle are poor at defending centrally. They conceded far too many goals from players cutting inside from the wide areas and having a shot on goal, as well as cutting the ball back from the by-line. This is more than likely down to concentration as well as a lack of quality. Their panic and disorganisation centrally can be seen in the following image, in which Man City cut the ball back and score from the by-line;

Comparing Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez's Newcastle sides - tactical analysis tactics

Under both coaches, they have been far superior at defending high-crosses into the box as they have aerially dominant centre-backs.

Offensive Styles:

Much like their defensive styles of play, their offensive styles with Newcastle were very similar. Neither manager had players capable of playing out from the back and building structured attacks. Newcastle averaged 43% ball possession in 2018/19 compared to 41% in the 2019/20 season. Instead, they focused their attacks on offensive transitions with their wide players and centre-forwards.

Their attacking system relied heavily on winning the ball back and trying to hit their respective target men quickly. Rondon with Benitez, and Joelinton with Bruce. From a sample size of the last five games of the last two seasons, Joelinton had a higher success rate with aerial duels. Rondon managed only 15 successful aerial duels from 56 contested. This was just a 27% success rate. Joelinton completed 9 from 24 aerial duels but had a higher success rate with 38%.

Each player thrives from having runners making runs in behind that they can play to. They struggle to score many goals, however, with both men only scoring a combined total of 13 goals across the two seasons. Rondon scored eleven goals in the 2018/19 season, whilst Joelinton scored merely two, last season.

Their role was not primarily to score goals. They acted as an outlet for the backline to play to when looking to get the ball forward quickly. Newcastle don’t have particularly gifted players in possession, so neither manager wanted to take risks by playing their way out of danger. Instead, they instructed their defenders to play the ball up to their centre-forwards. From here the target men would look to either win the aerial duel or else bring the ball down and hold it up.

Comparing Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez's Newcastle sides - tactical analysis tactics

Comparing Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez's Newcastle sides - tactical analysis tactics

These two images are examples of Newcastle using their target men as outlets from a long pass. Very similarly with both coaches, they try to make sure that there is support for the player. This is so that they can always challenge for the second ball.

Once the ball was played to the target man, there would be at least one player in front and one in behind. If the ball is headed down, there would be a player in support to regain possession. However, there was also a player who made a run in behind in case the ball was flicked on. Generally, one of the opposition’s centre-backs would step out to contest with the centre-forward. When this happens, it is vital that there is a player running into the space left by the centre-back in order to exploit the space if the ball is flicked on.

The slight difference with Newcastle’s attacking transitions under Benitez was the use of the fullbacks. During their attacking transitions, Newcastle mainly looked to get their wingbacks on the ball in the wide areas. The wingers pushed inside to play off the centre-forward and make runs off of him.

In 2018/19, Newcastle managed an average of 18.7 crosses per game. In 2019/20, they only averaged 15.6. The wingbacks were the predominant crossers for them under Rafa.

Comparing Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez's Newcastle sides - tactical analysis tactics

Rondon was always the target from the crosses. However, if the ball dropped, the wingers would be there to win the second ball and create an opportunity.

The plan under Bruce was slightly different. The wingbacks would get high during the offensive transitions to try and stretch the defence, but they would still try and provide crosses to Joelinton. The difference was that Newcastle now used their individual skill with their wingers to dribble the ball into the box and create opportunities from that. Both Allan Saint- Maximin and Almiron scored a combined total of seven goals between them, with six assists.

The following image is an example of a typical Newcastle attacking transition under Bruce;

Comparing Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez's Newcastle sides - tactical analysis tactics


The purpose of this article was not to give a biased opinion on which manager has done a better job in charge of Newcastle United. It was simply an analysis, comparing both managers and their tactics to see if the criticism for Bruce was warranted. Bruce managed to finish thirteenth with Newcastle in the 2019/20 season. Benitez also managed to finish thirteenth the season. However, Benitez finished with one extra point, one extra win, and a superior goal difference. As I stated before, Bruce also spent roughly fifteen million pounds more in the
transfer market. In the 2017/18 season, Benitez finished tenth in the league table with them. Although, they had the same points tally as Newcastle last season, with 44. If Bruce can manage to have another season, in which Newcastle can top the Benitez’s points tally of 44, it will be difficult to argue against him being the more successful of the two. Until then, however, the jury is still out for the reader to decide.