It’s fair to say not many Newcastle United fans were overly enthused with the arrival of Steve Bruce in the St. James’ Park dugout last summer after the departure of the popular Rafa Benitez.
The Spaniard’s trophy record spoke for itself. He arrived at the club having won 12 managerial honours including the UEFA Champions League, so he had a better CV than any other Newcastle boss since Sir Bobby Robson.
What’s more, he not only stuck by the club following its relegation in 2016, he also delivered automatic promotion from the Championship at the first time of asking and kept the Magpies in the Premier League in both of the seasons that followed.
As for Bruce, he arrived at Newcastle with the second-worst win percentage of managers to have taken charge of 200 or more Premier League games.
Having replaced a coach whose most recent post before Newcastle was at Real Madrid, it was a tough act to follow for a man leaving Sheffield Wednesday.
Amid the fans’ discontent, there has been a clamour to praise Bruce or even downplay Benitez’s achievements from some sections of the media throughout the campaign.
“I still don’t understand why Rafa Benitez was deemed to be so good,” former Magpies boss Sam Allardyce told talkSPORT in April. “I just don’t understand it because Newcastle played such negative football then, it was unbelievable.”
As reported by the Shields Gazette, former Newcastle winger Kieron Dyer told Sky Sports earlier in July: “If Rafa Benitez had the season Steve Bruce has had, everyone would be saying: ‘What a super manager.'”
In his end-of-season Premier League grades, Sky Sports pundit Charlie Nicholas wrote: “Some Newcastle fans are questioning how dare we suggest Steve Bruce has done as good a job as Rafa Benitez, but come on guys, he has.”
Now that the dust has settled on Bruce’s first season in charge on Tyneside, it’s time to see how his record actually compares to Benitez’s.
In his first full top-flight season with Newcastle, Benitez guided the team to a 10th-placed finish with 44 points. The Magpies finished 13th in his second Premier League campaign, despite picking up one more point.
This season, Bruce’s side also finished 13th with 44 points, so in that regard their performance was roughly on par with the two previous years. Newcastle lost league 16 games under Bruce, compared with 17 defeats last season and 18 in the campaign before.
The Englishman also guided Newcastle to their first FA Cup quarter-final since 2006, before their exit at the hands of Manchester City.
However, there are signs the team have regressed under Bruce.
The team ended last season with a goal difference of minus six, having scored 42 goals and shipped 48. This season that difference worsened significantly to minus 20, with 58 conceded and just 38 scored.
Newcastle entered this season without their two top scorers from the last campaign, Ayoze Perez and Salomon Rondon. However, the club spent £56.5 million signing Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin, as well as bringing Andy Carroll back to the club on a free transfer, so it’s disappointing the team weren’t more dangerous in the final third.
They were much more vulnerable at the back, too. Under Benitez last season, the Magpies only conceded three or more goals on four occasions in the Premier League. Under Bruce, Newcastle shipped three or more goals in nine matches, including two 5-0 defeats.
Even the FA Cup run – something Newcastle fans have been crying out for since Mike Ashley took over the club in 2007 – wasn’t particularly inspiring.
Good fortune with draws meant they only faced lower-league opposition prior to the quarter-final. Bruce capitalised on that as they progressed through each round, but they still required replays to get past Rochdale and Oxford United, both of whom reside in League One.
Bruce fulfilled his mandate to keep Newcastle in the Premier League, and they did so relatively comfortably by finishing the campaign 10 points clear of the drop. The 59-year-old deserves recognition for that.
He also took charge of a team that boasted much more investment in it than the one Benitez managed, though, and his side performed worse at both ends of the pitch.
Newcastle fans don’t expect their side to be challenging for European places. After all, they’ve only finished higher than 10th in the Premier League once since Ashley bought the club.
They do want to see a team heading in the right direction, though, and Bruce’s major challenge next season is to show that they are.
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