After a mixed performance that saw Manchester United fall victim to Tottenham at Old Trafford last week, many observers pointed to Sunday’s match away to Newcastle as one that would prove a stern test for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. It was noted, especially after the home side’s strong win in Europe midweek, that there would need to be a step up in performance if United were to get any sort of result from St James’ Park.
Rumours and discussion had been circulating once again, about who would be starting in goal for the trip, with David De Gea getting the go ahead after a solid showing during the week. The back four consisted of Patrice Evra on the left, Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand in the middle and Rafael Da Silva on the right. Once again, United opted for a system that did not involve width, rather taking on a diamond formation with Valencia returning to the bench and Nani nowhere to be seen in the squad at all. Instead, Sir Alex went with Tom Cleverley, Michael Carrick and Shinji Kagawa in midfield, with Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Robin Van Persie the three forward men, with Rooney likely to be playing a deeper role closer to the midfield.
The match began with the visitors on the front foot. Looking to get off to a positive and quick start, United immediately went on the attack, dominating possession and looking to make the early moments count. Just over 5 minutes gone, Van Persie latched on to a Carrick pass that seemed destined to go out, but the Dutchman got a shot away to force a corner at an angle that meant a corner would have been the best result. Van Persie stepped up himself to take the corner, and whipped in a threatening cross for Jonny Evans to leap above his marker and head home with some power. 0-1, an ideal start for the away side.
The pressure continued, with United enjoying over 70% possession and looking bright going forward. It was nearly 0-2 soon after, as Welbeck chased down a back pass to Harper, who had the ball at his feet a little too long and finding himself dispossessed, only for Welbeck to scuff his shot wide with plenty of goal in front of him, and Van Persie charging in. A free kick won with just over a quarter of an hour gone, Rooney stepped up and fired a shot on target, pushed away for a corner. The resulting corner from Rooney was whipped in low to find Evra weaving in to meet it and head home to double the lead. Sir Alex’s men made the most of the early exchanges in a segment of the game that saw them have 7 attempts, 5 of which finding the target.
Soon after, Newcastle began to find their way back into the game, slowly taking back control of the game and threatening the defence themselves. The tackles flew in and cards were quickly shown, United getting three within fairly short time of each other. In an open game, both sides got forward but there were no changes to be had in the scoreline as half time arrived with the score 0-2.
The second half kicked off and within minutes there was controversy. A cross came in, David De Gea struggled to deal with it effectively as he came off his line, the ball found it’s way to Cisse, his effort nearly crossing the line as De Gea scrambled back able to palm the ball off the post. Newcastle thought they had scored and replays showed it was extremely close, but with agreement that the ball had not entirely crossed the line. Just before the hour mark, and it was time to introduce some width, with Kagawa making way for Valencia. Both sides had their moments, with Newcastle still attempting to make a dent in the visitors 2 goal cushion. However, with 70 minutes gone and it was 0-3 in spectacular fashion.
Cleverley had the ball on the right hand side, and with Van Persie making a move in the box, the Englishman played in a curling effort that caught Harper off his line to drop perfectly into the top corner of the net. Although he claimed otherwise, many believed it was a cross intended for Van Persie, but fans and players alike would not have cared at that point. There were more chances as the match reached it’s final moments, but there were to be no extra goals or last minute dramas as United saw out the game 0-3.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) The best performance so far
It is probably safe to say that Sunday’s effort at St James’ Park is the best that United have offered so far this season. After an opening few games that have stuttered at times, there were plenty of positives to take away from a game that was always going to be a challenge against a good Newcastle side. The way United started the match was particularly impressive, firing on all cylinders out of the blocks in what seemed a continuation from the second half against Tottenham. The passing was slick and United looked energetic in midfield and going forward. It appeared a case of attack is the best form of defence, and fans will have been pleased to see United make the early dominance count, getting two early goals and adding a third later in the second half. Even as Newcastle began to find their way into the game, the away side were resolute in putting up a strong challenge and not allowing themselves to get overwhelmed and maintaining their focus for the whole 90 minutes. A concern on occasion has been the tendency to back off with a comfortable lead, but that appeared to be remedied in this particular tie.
There were also one or two talking points. For example, one could argue Danny Welbeck appears short of confidence at the moment. There was no moment more obvious than after all the effort he went to of dispossessing Harper, only to lack composure and miss the resulting shot with the goal fairly wide open. Yes, he was off balance, but he seemed to panic in a situation that was really under his control. It would have been interesting to see Hernandez get a chance to play where Welbeck did as well, as I felt he impressed when he went out wider the last time he played. Finally, Kagawa appeared quieter than he had done when the season just started. The Japanese midfielder still played some good one touch football and was involved but was arguably anonymous at times, perhaps overshadowed by the influence of other players in the side.
2) 2 goals from 2 defenders from 2 corners….
For all the attacking talent United have at their disposal, it will have been refreshing for fans to see the goals spread out, with both Evans and Evra contributing the two early goals that gave their side an advantage. Van Persie talked of wanting more assists to his name during the week, and he will have been glad to provide one taking the corner for Evans’ goal and Rooney providing the corner for Evra. While it is always important for the strikerforce to be firing in on a regular basis, a team is always better placed when goals are provided from the unlikely sources as well as regular contributions from midfield for the days when the front line may not get those opportunities. In fact, it will have been pleasing to see United score from corners at all, with the apparent inability to take them a point often laughed about amongst United fans, particularly against a side that had not conceded from corners so far this season.
With regards to the third goal, one must wonder whether Cleverley meant what looked a superb curling effort. He insists that he does and it may be that he did, regardless of how we analyse it. If he did, it was certainly audacious, as well as a terrible cross for Van Persie at the same time. However, fans and teammates will not care as with his effort he put the game beyond doubt and secured the victory.
3) Rooney’s continued influence
For me, Wayne Rooney deserved man of the match. Taken off for Scholes towards the end, he put in a strong shift that saw him up and down the field doing what he could for the team. He looked threatening going forward, providing a good cross for Evra’s goal and coming close to scoring himself in the second half. Although he has yet to score so far in the league, one cannot complain about the last couple of performances he has put in, providing 5 assists in the last 3 games. He was back defending when he needed to providing cover and getting forward with pace. One wonders if we will see Rooney take on a full time role in midfield later on, but it certainly appears that he is in the ascendancy since returning from injury.
4) Signs of encouragement with a diamond system
With Young out injured, Valencia only just returning and Nani the subject of many rumours and speculation, United have found themselves playing a more narrow system in the form of a diamond, lacking the characteristic width that has been a staple of their play in the past. In the last game I mentioned my reservations about implementing the system at the moment, particularly given an opposition midfield that becomes claustrophobic. That said, on this occasion United used the width well using as much of the park as possible, with Evra and Rafael proving effective getting forward without getting exposed at the back.
One still wonders for how long and how often such a system will be used, especially at Old Trafford with a pitch that is asking to have it’s width utilised, but the fact that a different system could be used provides more options and a different style when problems on the wings arise.
5) David De Gea – a moment of weakness and strength in an instant
After a good showing midweek, David De Gea was given the starting berth against Newcastle, a prospect that had the potential to prove challenging for the Spaniard, providing a test of his command of the area. There have been some questions as to whether the current policy of rotating the goalkeepers is detrimental to the keepers themselves and to the overall stability of the defence. Of course, one cannot expect this idea to continue much longer, with one choice needing a consistent run of games to get the best of him. On Sunday, fans saw both sides of De Gea in an instant, as he struggled to deal with a cross that saw Cisse get an effort away and De Gea just managing to get his hand down to it and prevent what appeared a certain goal. In such a situation one could question his physicality when it arises, but the question should perhaps be his decision making in coming for such a cross. It could be said that he should have simply held his line at that point rather than risk being exposed and he would have been better placed if the ball got to Cisse. Of course, from there fans saw his incredible shot stopping ability and reactions.
I maintain that given his age and the learning curve he has to adopt, that time will see United’s investment come good. Patience is the key.