The suspension to the 2019/20 Premier League season gives us a chance to pause and reflect. With that in mind, here's the latest in a series of club reviews this entry focusing on Steve Bruce's outstanding achievement at Newcastle...
"Bruce deserves the highest praise for taking Newcastle to 35 points from 29 games – four more than his predecessor at this stage last season. "
When Newcastle United lost fan-favourite Rafael Benitez in the summer and replaced him with Steve Bruce, most pundits assumed the Magpies were doomed.
Losing Ayoze Perez and Salomon Rondon only added to that, which is why Bruce deserves the highest praise for taking Newcastle to 35 points from 29 games - four more than his predecessor at this stage last season.
In fact, there is a decent argument for awarding Bruce the Premier League Manager of the Year.
Season so far
After losing the first two games of the season, including a 3-1 defeat at Norwich, it looked like predictions of a relegation scrap were accurate. But a 1-0 win at Tottenham in August ultimately set the tone for a campaign defined by ultra-defensive football, extreme resilience against the big teams, and snatching winners on the break.
Newcastle have won nine league games this season, eight by a one-goal margin and five with a 1-0 score line. They rank bottom of the table for average possession (40.8%), have scored the joint fewest goals (25), and have faced the fourth most shots (15.3 per game). This is a team built on sitting deep, defending in numbers, and collecting points with ruthless efficiency.
Bruce has consistently deployed a 5-4-1 formation, a favourite of his since his Hull City days, relying on Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin to make ground on rare counter-attacks - and relying on the centre-backs to score from set-pieces. Defenders account for 48% of Newcastle's league goals this season.
Long-term, the fans won't be happy with such negativity, but while Mike Ashley remains at the club Premier League survival is a gift. In their current context, 2019/20 has gone very well for the Magpies.
Saint-Maximin has been joyous. His maverick dribbling is often out of control - and all the more fun for it - but as the season goes on the Frenchman has begun to add a final ball to his game. He only has three goal contributions to his name, and yet Saint-Maximin ranks third in the league for completed dribbles with 4.4 per game. That is a rare commodity.
A 1-0 win at home to Manchester United in September was undoubtedly the highlight of the campaign. Bruce made the bold decision to play the Longstaff brothers together in midfield and Matty, on his debut, scored the winner to cap a brilliant individual performance. Isaac Hayden's 93rd-minute winner against Chelsea in January also stands out.
Finally, Almiron scoring his first goal, the decider in a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace, is something for Newcastle fans to cherish. The Paraguayan, signed for £21 million, had gone almost an entire year at the club without scoring. The relief was felt by everyone associated with the club.
Joelinton has been a huge disappointment. The 23-year-old, signed for £40 million in the summer, has scored just once for Newcastle this season and his performances are getting worse over time. The Brazilian has a very difficult job, often finding himself isolated up front, but nevertheless he has been one of the biggest flops in recent Premier League history.
Probably The Magpies' worst result was a 5-0 defeat at Leicester City in September, when Hayden's straight red card just before half-time led to a second-half rout from the hosts. At the time it looked to confirm Newcastle would struggle this season, only for Bruce's side to promptly beat Man Utd seven days later.
What they can achieve in 19/20
They only need three or four more points to survive the drop, meaning a top ten finish, priced at 4.1 with Betfair Exchange, is now a realistic target for the club. Being eight points off seventh, Newcastle are highly unlikely to qualify for European competition - but will record their highest league finish since 2011/12 if they can grab ninth.
The Magpies are also still in the FA Cup, but drawing Manchester City in the quarter-final means their run will probably end soon, hence the odds of 36.035/1 with Betfair Exchange.
What next: Summer transfers & 2020/21
It seems unlikely that Ashley will be able to sell the club this year following the chaos of the league's suspension, which means the best Newcastle fans can hope for is a similar performance under Bruce in 2020/21. However, to do that will require some major reinforcements. They are unlikely to win so many of those tight contests next season.
They need a new striker to provide Joelinton with competition, while more creativity out wide would also be helpful. Almiron and Saint-Maximin are too erratic to consistently conjure chances for the forwards.
It's easy to forget that the vast majority of pundits expected Newcastle to finish rock bottom of the Premier League this season. It was widely believed that Benitez's brilliance was the only thing holding the club together, and yet Bruce is well on course to surpass the Spaniard's achievements.
He has done a phenomenal job, even if the football is excruciatingly dull. At this frustrating and wearying juncture in the club's history, Newcastle fans will be very happy with the squad's achievements so far.