Leeds United travel to St James’ Park on Friday in a meeting of two sides looking for their first Premier League win of the season. While Newcastle and the visitors find themselves in a similar boat on paper, the atmosphere at the two clubs could not be more different.
Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa is akin to a messianic figure at Elland Road, and fans of the West Yorkshire club have every faith he will arrest their early-season slide. Tyneside, on the other hand, has an air of toxicity about it as another frugal transfer window from owner Mike Ashley has left unpopular coach Steve Bruce under-resourced and under the cosh. These clubs both find themselves near the bottom of the league, but if fan satisfaction counted towards your points total, then they would be at opposite ends of the table.
‘We Want Brucie Out’ rang around the away section at Old Trafford, a stadium where its target remains a folk hero as a former captain, as Newcastle were put to the sword by Manchester United. That Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired 4-1 loss felt like the final straw for many fans, but in Newcastle the final straw is always a reusable one. The Magpies have been here before with other managers. An underwhelming campaign, followed by prayers for investment that go unanswered, rinse and repeat. Many managers, for sure, but only one owner. This is the familiar pattern of Mike Ashley’s Newcastle.
Bruce is not blameless, the style of play has been difficult to determine at times, and utterly moribund at others. While on paper, finishes of 13th and 12th in his two completed seasons seem passable for a side who spent a year in the Championship in the 2016-17 campaign, it shows a lack of ambition. Newcastle fans are numerous and vocal, and the sight of their team spinning their wheels, playing below-par football and just surviving each year is not good enough. Bruce, fairly or unfairly, has become an emblem for the “do just enough” era of Newcastle.
What the Toon Army wouldn’t give for a manager like Marcelo Bielsa. The mercurial Argentine has revived a long-dormant Leeds United and sent them careering into the Premier League in a whirling-dervish of attacking excitement. Leeds go out to hammer teams or get hammered trying. They were destroyed 5-1 by Manchester United on the opening day, played out a thrilling 2-2 draw with Everton the week after, before an uncharacteristic 1-1 tie with Burnley. At the weekend they suicidally stuck to their principals as Liverpool trounced them 3-0. In theory, these results are not good enough. In practice, they are pursued with such sinew-straining relentlessness that fans can forgive a poor run of form.
Leeds are the polar opposite to Newcastle’s safety-first approach. Neither have much to show for their efforts so far this season, but if you are going to lose then most fans would rather lose on the front foot and Leeds have at least done that. They are also still riding the crest of a wave from a surprising ninth-place finish last season. Fans have the receipts, there is proof the Bielsa method works and thus they are willing to stick with it through a fallow patch. Newcastle fans can only point to the grim trudge towards safety as evidence in Bruce’s defence, and just about staying up is for newly-promoted teams, not clubs who pack 50,000 in at home
The stylistic differences could not be more stark, but it is interesting that the impassioned attack of Bielsa and the drab, fan-baiting defensiveness of Bruce have had nearly identical records this season. Newcastle have scored five, conceded 12, and have a single point. Leeds have scored four, conceded 11 and have two points. The small sample size anomaly of Newcastle having scored more and Leeds conceding less aside, the two grand old clubs are enjoying a similar time of things.
Friday’s game is vital in changing the narrative around these two sides and their managers, but perhaps means slightly more to Bruce and Newcastle. Bielsa’s accumulated goodwill from promotion and then a ninth-place Premier League finish mean his line of credit is surely longer than his counterpart’s, and Leeds are 13/10 favourites to win the game with Betfred such is the feeling that a turnaround is more likely for Leeds than for their hosts. The Newcasyle fans have made their thoughts clear, they have seen enough, not just of Bruce but of Mike Ashley. The owner is not going anywhere in the medium term, with takeover rumours surfacing then disappearing with regularity. Therefore the buck stops with the manager. It is unlikely his tenure will survive much more of this, and it will be very interesting to see who is in the dugout when Newcastle travel to Leeds for the return fixture in January.
Whoever it is, it is probably a safe bet that Marcelo Bielsa will be leading Leeds out at Elland Road that day. Their start has been poor, but with newly-promoted Watford and Norwich City to play next month, those at the club will be confident they can get points on the board. The fans share this confidence, but Bielsa would be wise to look at the plight of Steve Bruce as a cautionary tale. When the results stop going your way, while the expectations from the club’s fans remain high, the role of manager can become a very lonely one indeed. ‘We Want Bielsa Out’? It couldn’t happen, could it?