As the packed winter schedule drew to a close, Manchester United made a trip to Newcastle United on a windy Wednesday evening before their FA Cup tie with neighbours Manchester City. After a shock 3-2 reverse at home to Blackburn days earlier, it was of prime importance that United got back to winning ways to keep up and stay level on points with the league leaders. After being left out of the game with Blackburn for disciplinary reasons, Wayne Rooney was recalled to the starting line up to partner Dimitar Berbatov up front, Rio Ferdinand made a return to bolster a severely depleted back line and Anders Lindegaard was given the nod ahead of David De Gea after his errors the Saturday before. Newcastle, although having dropped points of late had so far had a strong season having built up a number of points that put them in a strong position going into the second half of the season, and it was Alan Pardew’s side that got off to the brighter start, coming forward at United and finding routes through centrally, After the initial exchanges the game balanced out more, although it was Newcastle who looked the more threatening of the two. Notable chances included Dimitar Berbatov having a deflected header slowly bounce off the post and Rio Ferdinand was lucky not to concede a penalty when he looked as though he brought down Demba Ba in the box. However, the missed decision proved of little significance as the in-form Ba turned a volley past the challenging Ferdinand into the side of the net with his back to goal to give his side a somewhat deserved 1-0 lead. United responded but failed to produce anything meaningful, with the side looking sluggish and play producing little going forward. The second half began and United found themselves in a situation similar to a few days prior, as Newcastle made it 2. Phil Jones conceded free kick that was lined up Cabaye to go for goal. The resulting shot left United stunned as the beautifully struck ball crashed against the underside of the bar of the top left corner, to bounce over the line and spin back outwards, and after a moment of confusion from some, it became clear the goal had indeed been awarded. At 2-0 with most of the half left to play, United may well have been in it with a goal early on. Changes were made to liven the team, Hernandez, Welbeck and Anderson all brought on in place of Berbatov, Rooney and Park at different times. This was to no avail as United laboured with Newcastle comfortable even when playing more defensive. Finally, the evening was brought to a sorry end for United as miscommunication between Lindegaard and Jones led to to a long ball being poorly dealt with and Jones to nod into his own net. 3-0, and it was all that was deserved on a one-sided evening where Newcastle took credit for a strong performance and United were punished for their mediocrity on an ineffectual evening going forward and issues with dealing with the long ball at the back, With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Rooney below par, ramifications of the punishment?
Wednesday evening saw Wayne Rooney return after being dropped for disciplinary reasons last week. In all, this was probably justified, as both Gibson and Evans received the same treatment, and although this act probably had a detrimental effect on the side given their shock defeat to Blackburn, to equally punish all those involved in breach of discipline is simply logical, as no one player is bigger than the club. The subsequent fine and ban was apparently accepted but one must wonder the ramifications of this on the following game against Newcastle. Some speculated that Rooney may take it as an opportunity to run riot and cause the opposition nightmares, but this simply was not the case as he looked sluggish all evening until his substitution late on. His control was off and he did not pose the threat that some may have expected. It could be argued that the consequences of what happened are being seen with a change in demeanour or that what occurred was more than just a case of being punished for going out for a meal. All game Rooney seemed to struggle on, looked sluggish and summed up United’s evening as a whole. Fans will be hoping he improves somewhat by the weekend.
2) De Gea dropped, Lindegaard took the place, correct decision but mattered little
After a poor game for David De Gea against Blackburn, Sir Alex Ferguson was defiant in backing his keeper and stated he would play the following game. However, in the build up to the match, there was a backtrack, with Ferguson opting for Lindegaard who he believed to be more experienced in handling the kind of game that would be played at Newcastle. In all the Danish goalkeeper certainly looked more assured for much of the game and although he could do nothing about the first two goals, some responsibility may be laid at his feet for what occurred between himself and Jones for the unfortunate own goal.
3) Defensively vulnerable, Newcastle exploited
It was clear from the outset that Newcastle were looking to exploit United defensively going forward. This involved a direct approach to play that caught United out on more than one occasion. Early on it was clear that this was causing problems, with Ba in particular making a nuisance of himself to the back line that may well have led to a penalty. This was also evidenced by the manner of the first goal, a superb finish that was taken superbly from a long ball and it was these battles that United seemed to lose all evening. As well as this in the air Jones seemed to get beaten often an indication that the absence of Vidic was being felt more than fans would have hoped. Injuries are still taking their toll on the defence, considering United are still using Valencia at right back, but given the experience of Ferdinand and Evra as well as Jones being an established centre back, United should have dealt with the danger better.
4) Midfield battle was lost
This game in particular continued to highlight the midfield weakness currently experienced. Too often passes were misplaced and the ball given away and although there were touches of class from Giggs, Park failed to make an impact and were generally outclassed by the likes of Tiote and Cabaye all evening. Service up front was fairly hit and miss and the worry is what problems it may cause when United come up against City with the likes of Toure occupying the centre of midfield for them.
5) Newcastle worthy of victory, United woeful
In summary, the match on Wednesday night was simply a case of Newcastle United playing well, showing determination, quality and effectiveness going forward with Manchester United looking the opposite. The likes of Cabaye, Tiote and Ba epitomised an all round team effort that made the 3-0 victory appear justified despite the unfortunate nature of the third goal. Creatively there seemed to be little bar the occasional moment and all the time there seemed to be this lack of fight throughout the side, an inability to win the battles when it mattered all over the pitch. The argument of many players missing did not ring true either, as the side put out was not lacking in first team experience, with the likes of Rooney, Ferdinand and Giggs all being brought in and fewer instances of players being out of position. It was a laboured performance that may well have fans concerned for the situation to improve come the weekend. This will likely lead to fans praying for some sort of signing during the transfer window despite statements to the contrary from the management making such occurrences unlikely.