Steve Bruce says he does not send out his Newcastle United team to play badly, and of course he doesn’t.
But there is little evidence of what they are trying to achieve after another fortuitous night in which the head coach was again forced to defend his tactics.
The problem is, supporters and observes are scratching their head as to what those tactics are right now.
Newcastle celebrate winning the penalty shootout against Newport County 5-4 on Wednesday
Newcastle required a late equaliser and penalties to get past League Two Newport County
Bottom of the Expected Goals (XG) table for over a year, they continue to give it large in the XL department. Expected Luck, that is.
To progress past League Two opposition here they needed a late equaliser from Jonjo Shelvey to force penalties and a spot-kick so wild from Newport defender Brandon Cooper that it may well have landed in Cardiff.
Indeed, passage to the last eight was the only positive from an otherwise desperate display. It’s a results business, they say, and Bruce’s aren’t terrible, far from it.
But performances are, and that is the concern among a fanbase who see little identity or progression about their team. Bruce disagrees.
Jonjo Shelvey curled a beautiful shot into the top corner for the equaliser in 87th minute
Shelvey celebrated with ‘shush’ gesture despite the tie taking place in an empty stadium
‘I’m manager of Newcastle United and, if you don’t win or perform, you get criticised,’ he said. ‘I agree we didn’t play well enough, but now all of a sudden it’s questioning tactics. I find the whole thing disappointing. We don’t go out there not wanting to play well.’
The outcome was harsh on Mike Flynn’s supposed underdogs, who led from the fifth minute when Tristan Abrahams shot through the floppy palms of Mark Gillespie. The goalkeeper’s error was symptomatic of a weak and witless Newcastle performance during the first half.
On the eve of the game Bruce had spoken forcefully of the need to start positively, well at least he told the media as much. His players clearly weren’t listening.
Tristan Abrahams opened the scoring with his fourth goal in the Carabao Cup this season
Given his team’s apparent indifference to their task, he probably should have made his first substitution long before the hour mark, when he turned to his £60million front pairing of Callum Wilson and Joelinton, who later missed in the shootout.
Off came Andy Carroll, whose presence to that point had seemingly been the sole focus of Newcastle’s game-plan. Namely, a hopeful punt in the striker’s direction.
That they were still within one goal of a shootout owed much to Newport’s profligacy. In the three minutes before half-time both midfielder Scott Bennett and forward Padraig Amond leathered narrowly wide from positions of promise inside the area.
Newcastle’s only moment of genuine threat was a Jacob Murphy drive from range that was repelled by goalkeeper Nick Townsend.
Abrahams’ tame effort was fumbled by Newcastle’s stand-in goalkeeper Mark Gillespie
The final half hour offered much more by way of attacking territory – and so it should – but Townsend’s most taxing duty was taking goal-kicks, and that said much for Newcastle’s finishing before Shelvey’s late intervention, a fine curling effort into the top corner.
It then took a pair of goal-line clearances from Newport defenders to ensure penalties, and a stoppage-time victory for Newcastle would have been unjust.
Bruce disagreed. ‘In my opinion we deserved to go through after a difficult first half, in particular,’ he said.
Newcastle winger Jacob Murphy has a shot saved by Newport goalkeeper Nick Townsend
Newport goalkeeper Nick Townsend dives to make an acrobatic save against Newcastle
‘But you have to credit Newport. You can understand why they’ve beaten Watford, Swansea, Middlesbrough, Leeds and Leicester. They’re a decent footballing side. We knew that after watching them against Bolton on Saturday. But we are through and I thought we played very well in the last half hour.’
A fourth-tier team who troubled Bolton, however, should not be causing the same problems for a Premier League side.
But again Bruce and his players found a way to survive, and that is to their credit. He has brought good luck if not a good look to Newcastle, and while that remains so will he.
Newcastle midfielder Jonjo Shelvey battles for possession with Newport’s Scott Twine
Newcastle winger Jacob Murphy takes on Newport duo Ryan Haynes and Matty Dolan
Newcastle striker Andy Carrol is tackled by Newport midfielder Josh Sheehan