Newcastle, Leeds and the Importance of Being … Something

NEWCASTLE, England — The sound system at St James’s Park crackled into life just as the whistle blew and the players took the knee, as they have done for every Premier League game since the spring. The announcement was brief and sweet, an unexpected relic of days past: “Enjoy the game.”

In the silence, it was not quite clear who the announcer was addressing. There are only 300 people inside the stadium: the players on the field, the two coaching staffs, a handful of executives, a smattering of stewards and security and journalists. Everyone was there for work, rather than pleasure.

And besides, even if the announcer’s words were meant for those in exile at home, the people who would ordinarily pack the empty stands, this is Newcastle United. Few, if any, of the fans would suggest they have enjoyed anything to do with this club for some time.

Newcastle is — and has been for a long time — a club in the grip of endemic drift. Its owner, Mike Ashley, wants to sell, so much so that he has sought legal recourse against the Premier League for blocking a potential sale to a Saudi-led consortium last year.

The fans, tired of Ashley’s absentee management and his lack of investment, either emotional or financial, want him gone so desperately that they appear ready to embrace any would-be savior, no matter how many concerns there might be about charges of content piracy or human rights abuses.

If the loathing for Ashley is universal, the contempt for Steve Bruce — the manager installed by the owner last season — is getting there. It is not just that Bruce used to manage Sunderland, Newcastle’s fierce rival. It is not just that Bruce replaced Rafael Benítez, an object of adoration among the fans. It is not just that Bruce was appointed by Ashley and so — in a way that never applied to Benítez — is perceived as an emissary of a hated regime.

It is that Bruce, like Ashley, seems to have so little ambition for the club. He has articulated no grand vision of what Newcastle could be. His aspiration seems to stretch no further than stasis, the bare minimum required to maintain the club’s Premier League status. He has no vision beyond the literal wording of his job description: manager.

In the middle of another difficult winter at Newcastle, Bruce spoke of addressing a slump in form by doing things “his way.” It was not entirely clear, then, whose way he had been following up to that point: He has been in charge for a season and a half. Quite what his way might be, too, remained a mystery.

Those who have worked with him say that Bruce is a good coach, thorough and diligent and likable, if perhaps a little staid, a little cautious. But he espouses no distinct philosophy. He does not have a tightly-defined idea of how the game should be played, or what a squad should look like, or what a team should do. He does not seem to believe in anything in particular. He does not represent anything. He does not stand for anything.

His counterpart last week, crouching on the touchline a few yards away, is the opposite. Before the game kicked off, Newcastle and Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United were not having vastly different seasons. Both were skirting the edges of the relegation battle: Leeds had 23 points and Newcastle 19, despite having played one extra game.

The coverage of the teams — and the mood around them — could not, though, have been more different. Newcastle, as always, was a morass of discontent and bubbling crisis. Leeds, on the other hand, had taken the Premier League by storm, hailed by fans and neutral observers for their courage, their style, their adventure.

Bielsa’s team had spent the season as a source of fascination and praise and, lately, a little resentment: No other team could lose by 6-2 to Manchester United, for example, and come out of it not just without criticism but with credit. Some of that, of course, can be attributed to the fact that Leeds, unlike Newcastle, was newly promoted, playing the Premier League for the first time in 16 years. Oscillations in form were to be expected, tolerated.

But much of it is down to Bielsa. The Leeds that he has created is, innately, fun: fun to watch, and, though demanding and energy-sapping, apparently fun to be. His players give the impression they are enjoying themselves. Luke Ayling, the right back, charges out of defense like a toddler doped up on sugar. Jack Harrison scurries around like an eager Labrador. Stuart Dallas, in his first season in England’s top flight, has developed a taste for pinging cross-field passes. They put together wonderful, exuberant moves. They score intricate, breathtaking goals.

More important, Bielsa’s dogmatism, his fundamentalism, his refusal to compromise his beliefs — all the things that, previously in his career, have been held against him — are now strengths. Leeds stands for something: a way of playing, a series of assumptions about how the game should be, a theory, a creed, an ideal.

In recent years, soccer has slowly, grudgingly accepted the idea that managers who adhere to a philosophy, a certain set of ideas, are not selling snake oil. It is understood, on some level, that possessing a clear sense of what you want your team to be offers a competitive edge: It helps recruit the right players, it makes coaching them more effective, it offers a barometer of success and purpose that is not reliant on individual results. At an executive level, it can even, at times, ease the transition between one manager and the next.

But the benefits of a cogent philosophy are not purely sporting. It has been striking, in Leeds’s low moments under Bielsa, how little discord there has been about his methods. Most fans, if not all, are happy to absorb the lows as an unfortunate, but necessary, recompense for the highs.

Subscribing to Bielsa’s philosophy gives them something to take pride and solace in, even when the score line offers no succor. It affords the club, and by extension the fans, an identity. They stand for something that does not depend on results. Newcastle is the opposite. A few days after losing to Leeds, Bruce’s team won at Everton. His side produced a smart, disciplined performance, and the victory alleviated mounting concerns over relegation. It did absolutely nothing to dispel the enduring unhappiness.

That contrast, between Leeds and Newcastle, holds outside England’s two great one-club cities. Fans, increasingly, no longer see a manager talking about a philosophy and a vision as marketing jargon or corporate bunk. It is, instead, something to cling to and believe in, a reason to be proud.

For much of this season, criticism has swirled around Graham Potter and Brighton. The team has lingered in the lower reaches of the table, its neat, attractive, flexible style of play winning plaudits but few games. He did not flinch when he was told he had to deviate from his methods to get results. More impressively, few of the club’s fans did, either. They understood, and appreciated, his plan. In the space of four days this week, Brighton beat Tottenham and Liverpool.

The opposite is true at Chelsea. The dismissal of Frank Lampard and his replacement by Thomas Tuchel, vastly more qualified for the role, was made in order to win trophies; that, after all, is Chelsea’s modern, corporate identity. But it left fans feeling rootless: What mattered to them is not just the outcome, but feeling that the route taken has some deeper meaning.

This is not a uniquely English phenomenon. In Europe, fans “no longer recognize themselves in their clubs,” as Le Monde wrote of Bordeaux, Nantes and Marseille this week, three teams with no apparent broader purpose or identity. [A hat-tip to reader Manuel Buchwald for pointing me in the direction of that piece.]

For years, fans have endured a growing sense of dislocation from their clubs, feeling unmoored as teams have morphed into superstores and retail brands and content farms and their players into millionaire entrepreneurs. That feeling will, of course, have only been exacerbated by the physical distance enforced by the pandemic.

In that environment, clubs now effectively have to stand for something, anything: a reliance on youth, a certain style of play — expansive or exciting or muscular or intense, whatever it may be — or a distinct, bespoke approach. Those who do, like Leeds, earn not only patience from but also the admiration of their fans.

Those who do not, like Newcastle, find that when there is no reason to enjoy the game — not the result, not the journey — the fire of fury and regret can quickly curdle into something much more dangerous for a business reliant on the unyielding affection of its public: apathy. That is the lesson Ashley, and Bruce, can teach the rest of soccer, that those who stand for nothing risk dwindling away into it.

Maybe We Were Just Early in the Season?

This has been, you will have heard, the most unpredictable Premier League season in history. Well, since Leicester City won it, anyway. It has definitely been the most unpredictable season since that one, five years ago.

The reality is slightly different. Yes, pretty much the whole top half of the Premier League might still nurse an ambition to qualify for European soccer next season. But the three teams at the foot of the table seem cut adrift, and by the close of play on Sunday, the title race might have swung fairly dramatically toward Manchester City.

If City can beat an exhausted, uninspired and injury-ravaged Liverpool at Anfield, Pep Guardiola’s team most likely will have killed off the reigning champion’s dwindling hopes, and gone at least three points clear of its nearest rival — a vastly improved, but still unfinished Manchester United — with a game in hand. City has won 13 games in a row. It has not conceded a goal since the Franco-Prussian War. In a season of twists and turns, it has found a straight road.

There is a strong possibility that, the race for the top four aside, a season that was meant to be marked by the unpredictable will end up with the most predictable outcome imaginable. And, though the circumstances of this year have been unusual, it feels as if this is a sensation we have had before.

The table is always tight, chaotic, fluid for the first half of any season. The gaps between teams are smaller, because they have played fewer games, and so it takes a while to settle. In the opening few months, every season has an air of uncertainty.

It is only now, as we turn the corner into the home straight, that order emerges. That has happened later, chronologically, this season — because the start was delayed by two months — but at the same time as it always does, in terms of games played. The effect has been more pronounced, thanks to the compacted schedule, the empty stadiums and the greater impact of injury and fatigue, but it is not unique. This is what always happens. It is just that we always forget.

Correspondence

Sadly, Laurence Dandurant has far too much clarity in his thinking to be consulted on how soccer can extricate itself from the nonsense — as any Southampton fan would describe it — it has made of its own offside rule. “Why don’t they change the offside rule to just a player’s boots? This would end the maddening shoulders and armpits debate.”

Personally, I’m an advocate of the daylight rule — if any part of the player’s body is onside, the player is onside — but this works just as well.

As I was expecting, last week’s column on the Old Firm inspired quite a bit of feedback, though (amazingly) none of it was especially angry. That must be a first. You raised quite a few points I’d like to address, so bear with me.

“I completely agree with the sentiment of the Old Firm buying older players hampering their development on a European stage but think the greatest impact has been on the Scotland national team,” Benjamin Livingston wrote. “The Old Firm and the league as a whole are signing journeymen players from down south, rather than giving their own youth a chance.” This is a really important point: the future for Scotland, like (say) Belgium, is in having a much younger league.

Catherine Pereira, meanwhile, pointed out that while Scotland’s men’s team has not been to a major tournament for two decades, its women’s team was at the World Cup in 2019, and performed credibly. “The team is ranked 21 in the world by FIFA,” she wrote. “It’s not great, considering Scotland’s history, but it’s not quite as disappointing as the men’s.” Quite right, too, though much of the praise for that should go to a Glasgow team that is not in the Old Firm.

William Bradley noted, quite correctly, that last week’s piece ignored the sectarian roots of the Old Firm animosity. “Your story did not touch on or even mention [that], which I must say from your story’s journalistic quality.” That was deliberate. Everyone involved believes sectarianism to be a stain on Scottish soccer that should be left in the past. In a column addressing the future, I decided to take the same approach.

And thanks to Ian Stewart, who has touched on something that is, I think, really important. “There seems to be a strain of thinking that prizes turning clubs into machines of player development, churning out young stars to be sold off to fund the next round of stars-in-development,” he wrote. “This is a front-office mind-set, not a fan’s. As a fan, I simply want to see the best team possible being fielded as often as possible.”

This is a tension that a host of teams — right up to the likes of Borussia Dortmund — have to navigate: Soccer would lose a lot of its richness if everyone apart from the established financial elite decided their role was simply to feed the insatiable appetite of the powerful. There is a logical counterargument, though: The process of development-and-sale, if done well, can not only help you win today, but enable you to win more in future, as those funds are reinvested in better-quality players. Perhaps, in this case, a front-office mind-set is healthy.

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