STEVE BRUCE has defended his second-half tactics as Newcastle United kicked off their season with a 1-0 home defeat to Arsenal, but admitted his side were undone by a costly error.

Bruce’s managerial debut ended in defeat as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang converted Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ cross to score the only goal of the game shortly before the hour mark.

Debutant Jetro Willems was at fault for the goal, dawdling to allow Maitland-Niles to seize possession ahead of him, but Bruce was also criticised for a series of decisions that contributed to the Dutchman having to replace the injured Jonjo Shelvey.

Willems initially came on to the field as a midfielder, but was shuffled across to wing-back after the miscommunication was addressed. However, with Bruce having opted not to name Ki Sung-yueng among his substitutes, Newcastle ended with Matt Ritchie playing in central midfield and another debutant, Allan Saint-Maximin, playing in front of Willems down the left flank.

“We’ve made a genuine mistake and paid for it,” said Bruce. “Whether the pass was too short or whether he (Willems) hasn’t reacted quick enough, at the end of the day I can’t criticise anybody for making a mistake.

“I thought he was too high up the pitch. I thought his position to start with was too high, and made the ball longer than what it should have been. If that’s a criticism, then it’s something we can work on.

“Jonjo was injured and that’s why he went off. Ki wasn’t injured, he just wasn’t part of the squad today. Jetro could have played in midfield if I’d wanted him to, and Matt Ritchie playing there too is something we’ve seen.

“We had a knock to Dummett and we had a worry over (Jamaal) Lascelles this morning because he wasn’t feeling too great. It was important I had two central defenders on the bench. That’s what we were guarding against.

“I’m hugely disappointed with the result, of course I am, but it’s the manner of the way that we gave a sloppy goal away that’s the biggest disappointment.”

Bruce felt his side performed reasonably well in the first half, with Jonjo Shelvey striking the woodwork and Joelinton forcing a decent save from Bernd Leno.

However, he concedes their threat subsided after Arsenal claimed the lead, enabling the visitors to cruise through the final half-hour without really being stretched.

“There was nothing really in the game, full stop,” he said. “I thought we had the better chances in the first half but didn’t really create anything in the second half. It was difficult conditions, but both sides really failed to create a real goalscoring opportunity.”

Prior to kick-off, there had been widespread talk of a supporters’ boycott, with a number of fans’ groups combining to organise a protest against Mike Ashley’s continued ownership of the club.

In the end, the attendance of more than 47,635 was around 4,000 down on the gate for the opening home game of last season, a significant total, especially if season ticket holders who did not choose to attend the match are added, but hardly a drop that will have far-reaching ramifications.

“Since I’ve been here in the last three and a half weeks, everybody I’ve bumped into has been nothing other than positive,” said Bruce. “There’s nothing I can do about people protesting. They earn their hard-earned money, and they’re entitled to protest, everybody is.

“The one thing I need to do is work hard on the training ground to give them a team they enjoy watching. The effort and endeavour were there today for everybody to see. We made a few mistakes and that’s cost us, but overall if we can improve, then my job is to get the supporters back onside and enjoying watching their team.”

Bruce spoke of his pride at taking charge of Newcastle in a competitive setting for the first time, and managing director Lee Charnley used his programme notes to reopen the debate over his predecessor, Rafael Benitez.

Charnley had not previously spoken about Benitez’s departure, but clearly feels the Spaniard’s move to Chinese side Dalian Yifang was motivated purely by money.

“We understand and expected the disappointment that Rafa’s departure caused,” wrote Charnley. “We strongly believe we went beyond what could reasonably be asked in order to keep him. But let’s be clear, he moved to China for money.

“The offer he received was too tempting. We understand that and there is nothing wrong with that. It was not something we could compete against. We wish him well for the future and thank him for all he achieved.”