When the numbers lie: The curious case of Steve Bruce’s Newcastle

FootballCritic.com run the rule over Steve Bruce's side and explain how the Magpies are outperforming the statistics, ahead of their clash with Tottenham this Wednesday - exclusively live on BT Sport.

Published: 4 September 2020 - 3.21pm

Newcastle’s season is hard to gauge. 

There has been much speculation and excitement regarding a Saudi takeover - which would finally remove Mike Ashley - and, potentially, open up an entirely new transfer market to the club. 

But what about on the field?

It’s fair to say that Steve Bruce was not a popular appointment, even less so given the salary ultimatum that saw Rafa Benitez depart for China. Bruce was seen – with some basis - as the cheap option. 

However, a cursory glance at the statistics for Benitez’s two seasons in the Premier League, versus what Bruce has achieved this season, shows there’s very little to choose between the performances. 

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Yes, Benitez took the team up from the Championship and was able to consolidate their position in the top flight - they finished 10th in 17/18, recording 12 wins and a goal difference of minus eight, while in 18/19 they finished 13th, recording 12 wins, with a goal difference of minus six. 

Under Bruce? They are 13th, recording 11 wins, with a goal difference of minus 16. Yet the Newcastle fans are desperate for further signs of progression and Bruce, who joined from Sheffield Wednesday, never felt like a forward step.

He will keep them up, comfortably in the end. But there’s no denying that in some matches they have looked considerably off the Premier League pace. They suffered resounding defeats at Leicester, Arsenal and, most recently, Manchester City, where they looked disorganised and ill-equipped to properly compete. 

A deeper dive into the Magpies statistics suggest they have been extremely fortunate to collect as many points as they have – particularly over the midway point of the season in a series of matches where they were completely dominated.

Outperforming the numbers

Newcastle achieved a 2-2 draw with Man City despite recording just 0.21 in expected goals

Against Manchester City in November they achieved a 2-2 draw at St James’ Park despite recording just 0.21 on Expected Goals, while in victories over Sheffield United and Southampton they were easily outscored on the same metric and yet were able to claim the three points. 

In January against Wolves (D 1-1), Chelsea (W 1-0), Everton (D 2-2) and Norwich (D 0-0), Newcastle recorded just 2.6 xG in these matches versus 8.7 against, yet went unbeaten and claimed six points.

Indeed across the season they’ve slightly overperformed their expected goals scored (only Norwich has a lower xG total in the division), but significantly overachieved their expected goals conceded (52 goals versus nearly 64).

As a result, expected points has Newcastle rock bottom of the league.

These numbers? They’re not good. At all. 

Only Burnley (117) have completed fewer passes on average than Newcastle (124) within 20 yards of the opposition goal, and the reverse applies, too. They are second only to Aston Villa (329) in terms of completed passes allowed (326).

Teams dominate them most weeks.

And finally, we can look at Passes Allowed Per Defensive Action (PPDA) and, once again, they are bottom, allowing the opposition to make 19.1 passes before intervening, while when Bruce's men have the ball they are able to complete just 7.5 passes before the opponent intervenes. 

In short, they should have conceded more than they have, and given eight of their 11 league wins came courtesy of a single goal, the small margins have fallen in their favour, especially when there is very little between the teams in the bottom half of the table. 

There have been positives from the results. Allan Saint-Maximin has emerged in the second half of the season and, whilst inconsistent, only Adama Traore has completed more dribbles P90 (min 1,000 minutes) and he has given fans something to enjoy

Similarly, Miguel Almiron took many months to acclimatise to the league but is finally starting to show glimpses, particularly since the turn of the year - he has provided 10 goal contributions in all competitions.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for £40m-forward Joelinton - who has scored just twice since his club-record arrival in the summer.

Newcastle are getting by at the moment until the takeover happens or doesn’t. Bruce’s team have been fortunate, but given the situation he inherited, he has achieved the only thing that could be expected of them, and he deserves credit for that. 

Yet if there’s no takeover, if there’s no cash injection, and if Bruce stays, it will merely add to the fans’ frustration.

The supporters may feel that they deserve better, but next season the numbers might not fall so kindly in their favour. 

See if Newcastle can continue to outperform when they host Tottenham on Wednesday evening, exclusively live on BT Sport 1HD and Ultimate from 5.30pm.