IN the wake of Newcastle United’s largely unwatchable goalless draw with Norwich City last weekend, a train of thought emerged suggesting Steve Bruce was badly underperforming as Magpies manager.

His side might be 12th in the Premier League, seven points clear of the drop zone, and now through to the FA Cup fifth round for the first time in 14 years thanks to Tuesday’s scrambled win at Oxford United, but perhaps the league table is lying.

Newcastle are ranked bottom of the top-flight’s 20 clubs for expected goals and possession. They have completed fewer successful passes this season than all bar one of their rivals, and had fewer shots than all bar two. It is hard to discern a distinct attacking style under Bruce, and were it not for some fortuitous last-minute incidents and a string of superb saves from goalkeeper Martin Dubravka, they would almost certainly be in the bottom three. That luck will not last forever – Bruce, so the argument goes, should be doing much better.

First, I would dispute the extent to which Newcastle are underachieving. This is not a particularly good Newcastle side, indeed, man for man, I would argue they are inferior to just about every other team in the Premier League. Yet, somehow, Bruce has guided them to a mid-table position with 31 points from 25 matches.

True, they are rarely if ever pretty to watch, but having tried to be more open and expansive at the start of the season, when he played with a flat back four and encouraged his midfielders to press high up the field, Bruce watched both Norwich and Leicester rip his new-look team apart. As a result, he went back to the template that had been so effective under Rafael Benitez last season, switching to a back five, allowing his players to sit deep and adopting a largely counter-attacking approach. Surely that is pragmatic management rather than being unable to come up with a plan?

Bruce has been decisive when required, axing Ki Sung-yueng when he felt he was underperforming, and has been handicapped by a string of injuries, particularly in the attacking positions. Newcastle’s first-choice forwards have underperformed repeatedly this season, yet Bruce has been unable to drop them because he simply does not have any alternative options.

True, on most metrics, his side are struggling. Yet when it comes to the intangibles that are so important within a dressing room – team spirit, camaraderie, organisation, commitment – Bruce clearly commands the respect and loyalty of his players. You don’t dig in and run yourself into the ground the way Newcastle’s players routinely do unless you wholeheartedly believe in what you are doing. Previous Newcastle dressing rooms have splintered, resulting in teams far more talented than this one dropping out of the top-flight. The Magpies could still get relegated this season, but if they do, it will not be because some of their players have given up.

Bruce deserves credit for that, but even if you disagree with a positive assessment of the current situation and maintain that Newcastle are in a mess – and in a number of key areas, they undoubtedly are – laying the blame at the manager’s door is utterly misguided.

One man is responsible for the fundamental flaws that are holding Newcastle back – and it is not Steve Bruce. Trace the root cause of all the club’s major problems, and the blame can be pinned directly onto Mike Ashley. Blaming Bruce for Newcastle’s ills is like looking at a car with two flat tyres, an engine that hasn’t had any oil for three years and a rusting chassis that remains pockmarked and unrepaired, and observing, ‘Well, the driver took a couple of wrong turns there didn’t he?’

What are the key issues at Newcastle at the moment? Compile a list, and grumbles about the playing style will not even make the top ten. What about the sustained underinvestment in the squad compared to the club’s rivals in what might be termed the Premier League’s middle rank? How about the ridiculously rigid transfer policy that continues to result in Newcastle’s squad being overstocked with unproven youngsters desperately trying to acclimatise to the English game?

Maybe it’s the scouting and recruitment operation that does not appear fit for purpose given the willingness to spend £40m on a supposed striker that a host of clubs across the continent looked at repeatedly and decided to swerve? The academy, with its dreadful record for bringing through young talent in the last decade? The training ground that would embarrass plenty of clubs in the Championship, let alone the Premier League? St James’ Park, with its peeling paint and dated facilities?

They are all deep-rooted, fundamental issues holding Newcastle back – and Bruce is not responsible for any of them. Instead, it is Ashley, supposedly desperate to sell but seemingly no closer to actually relinquishing his lucrative global advertising hoarding for Sports Direct, that is the only person who can change the club’s course and enact meaningful improvements.

The harsh reality is that until Ashley moves on, the identity of the person in the St James’ Park dugout is largely irrelevant. Alan Pardew, Steve McClaren, Benitez and now Bruce – they have all been wrestling with the same overarching issues with varying degrees of success.

In terms of league position, Pardew was the most successful, helped admittedly by a couple of transfer windows in which nearly all of Graham Carr’s gambles came off. McClaren was the worst, with his struggles eventually leading to relegation. With the caveat that there are still 13 league games to play, and that Newcastle are not out of the woods yet when it comes to the possibility of relegation, Bruce, like Benitez, ranks somewhere in the middle, just about keeping Newcastle afloat, but unable to make a transformative leap forward while Ashley remains in control.

True, he could tinker with his tactics. Maybe he could play two up top, or station one of his central midfielders further forward to support the strikers. Ultimately, though, that is akin to shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic. Ashley is the skipper at the helm, charting his vessel’s course and ploughing on obstinately despite the copious evidence suggesting his methods are misguided. If the ship sinks, it will be down to him.