WHEN he was appointed as manager of Newcastle United, realising a lifetime ambition, Steve Bruce had a very clear vision of how he wanted his side to play. It was his romanticised ideal of what Newcastle should be about – free-flowing football, a devil-may-care attitude, front-foot attack. ‘The Entertainers’, reimagined more than two decades on.

Eight games into his Tyneside tenure, though, and reality has already begun to bite. There was nothing remotely entertaining about last weekend’s five-goal humiliation at Leicester City, unless you were a fan of the home side, and while he was quick to criticise his players’ lack of application in the wake of Isaac Hayden’s dismissal, Bruce was even more concerned with their inability to cope with the switch to a flat back four.

The defence was all over the place, the midfield pierced at will, just as it had been in the collapse at Norwich City at the start of the season, and as was the case when Bruce also tried to tinker with his formation during the goalless home draw with Brighton. On each occasion, the Newcastle boss tried to move away from the defensive mindset that was the bedrock of Rafael Benitez’s success in the last two seasons; on each occasion, his side was comprehensively outplayed.

So, when he lines his side up against Manchester United tomorrow, Bruce will be using Benitez’s tactical template as his blueprint. There will be a return of a back five. Newcastle’s central midfielders will be instructed to sit deep. A couple of creative attackers will be supporting lone striker Joelinton – most probably Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin – but that will be the extent of the home side’s ambition. It is not the way Bruce wants to play, but to avoid more chastening experiences like last weekend, it is the way it will have to be for the foreseeable future.

“Looking at the way the team is happiest, you’d say we’ll play with five at the back, with two number tens, and we’ll sit deep and play on the counter-attack, which is exactly what we did when we played against Tottenham,” said the Newcastle boss. “We changed for that game, and we changed because that is the way they had played for six months at the back end of last season when results were better.

“The two or three times I’ve tried to change us, including Brighton at home and Norwich where we started with a 5-3-2, it didn’t really work. I quickly worked out at Norwich that we didn’t have the players with the capability to play the way I’d envisaged.

“Norwich played through us repeatedly. I learned from that day, and it’s happened again (against Leicester). We get the statistics from every game, and they tell the story. Compared to everyone else, and especially in midfield and defensive, we register in a certain way.”

Those statistics, especially from last weekend’s game at Leicester, are especially damning. While Youri Tielemans completed 26 individual sprints during the game, one member of the Newcastle side is understood to have recorded none because his change of pace was insufficiently quick to register as a sprint according the matrix that is adopted by Opta.

While others covered plenty of ground, their lack of dynamism and pace was stark when posited against the statistics recorded by the Leicester midfield. In defence, a lack of speed means Newcastle’s players are more comfortable dropping deep and playing with three centre-halves, a tactical ploy that makes it more difficult for opponents to play through them, but that also makes it all-but-impossible for the Magpies to adopt a front-foot, high-pressing approach.

The jarring disconnect between the style Bruce would like to play and the one he accepts he will currently have to adopt raises multiple questions. Should he be bold enough to stick to his principles? Should he have tried to move away from Benitez’s blueprint in the first place? And perhaps most pertinently of all, why did the Newcastle hierarchy appoint a manager whose tactics and methods are so far removed from those of predecessor, who had spent the best part of three years drilling his squad to play a certain way?

As ever with Newcastle, there are plenty of questions and precious few answers. But Bruce knows he will have to find some solutions to avoid days like last Sunday becoming the norm.