It has been a season of homecomings for Steve Bruce and if he went back to his roots when he was appointed Newcastle manager, this represented a happy return to where his managerial career began.
He inflicted a first defeat since September on his former clubSheffield Unitedand their heaviest loss in 62 games. The victory elevated Newcastle to 11 th, level on points with Arsenal and dizzying heights given his troubled start, and one of management’s great survivors has outlasted Mauricio Pochettino, Unai Emery and Marco Silva this season.
He first celebrated victory in a Bramall Lane dugout in 1998, simpler times that Chris Wilder harked back to as he bemoaned VAR’s influence, in particular on Jonjo Shelvey’s clinching goal.
“I started off as an apprentice at Southampton at 16, played over 400 games in a bang-average career and went into management at non-league, ”said the Sheffield United manager. “I think I have managed close to 1, 000 games and the game has changed. Every interview I do is VAR-led. ”
All of which obscured the reality that awarding Shelvey’s goal was correct. As Bruce said: “Ultimately, it was the right decision.”
Defenders have proved the best form of attack for Newcastle, scoring eight of their first 13 league goals. Not this time. The outstanding goalkeeper Martin Dubravka represented the finest form of defense. Newcastle’s previously impotent attackers belatedly became productive.
Allan Saint-Maximin opened his Newcastle account with what was, remarkably and ridiculously, their first league goal by a forward since Joelinton struck at Tottenham in August. Andy Carroll marked a surprise first start for his hometown club since 2010 with an assist.
The other unexpected element was that Saint-Maximin, whose mesmeric, high-speed dribbling has made him a crowd favorite, delivered the sort of goal Carroll had copyrighted. “I didn’t think he would get a header at the far post,” Bruce said. “It is a classic trademark header.”
Saint-Maximin rose above the Geordie Chris Basham to meet Javier Manquillo’s cross with the kind of towering header any totemic target man would be proud to claim.
Carroll’s was a curiosity of a performance. “Everyone can see he needs games,” Bruce said, “but I thought this would be right up his street.” But because Carroll was utterly immobile, Newcastle lacked an outlet and were penned in. Yet, just as Bruce was about to bring on the more energetic Joelinton, Carroll helped secure victory. He won a won a flick-on and, for once, Newcastle had a runner from midfield.
Shelvey surged into the space. Cue confusion. As the assistant referee Derek Eaton raised his flag the Blades froze. Only two men kept on running: Shelvey, who sidefooted past a motionless Dean Henderson, and the referee, Stuart Attwell, who tracked him more assiduously than any defender.
“Everyone in the ground stopped,” Wilder noted. “Jonjo Shelvey even nonchalantly went up and took an opportunity.” Yet Bruce’s assistants, Steve Agnew and Stephen Clemence, were screaming at Shelvey to finish, which he duly did. “Well done to the referee for not blowing his whistle and also to Jonjo,” Bruce said. “That was the directive at the start of the season: to play to the whistle.”
As replays proved, Carroll was fractionally onside while there were two defenders behind Shelvey. A harsh lesson for Henderson, perhaps. “The linesman needs to learn a lesson – to keep his flag down,” Wilder said.
If VAR is a regular source of complaint for him, a recent constant for Newcastle has been Dubravka’s excellence. He maintained his magnificent formagainst Manchester City, showing athleticism and ability to keep out Enda Stevens’ deflected shot, Ollie Norwood’s curling free-kick and two close-range Oli McBurnie headers.
Perhaps his best stop was irrelevant, as he blocked the offside Billy Sharp’s diving header, but it was laudable nonetheless. “Our goalkeeper has made a couple of world-class saves,” Bruce said. “It is not bad for us to have him in a rich vein of form but the spirit and attitude was terrific.”
It compensated for other failings as Newcastle had only 26% of the ball. “That is the most we have dominated any team in thePremier Leaguefor a possession point of view,” Wilder said, “but they did a job on us. ”
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