Manchester United visited Newcastle on Sunday afternoon with high hopes of a comfortable away victory against a side struggling against relegation, having failed to win at home since 23rd October 2017. Unfortunately for Jose Mourinho and his team, Matt Ritchie unfortunately chose this encounter to convert his first goal of the season, ending a run of 43 shots without success. Here are five things we learned:
1. The Result was Unexpected
The season for Mourinho has often flattered to deceive, with a prevailing sense that his side are less than the sum of its parts. There have been disappointments at several key moments in the season, with defeats to the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Spurs. In fact, United have already lost as many games as they did in the whole of last season, when they limped home in 6th position.
However, there is no doubt that they have improved this season, illustrated by the fact they remain in second position despite two defeats in the last three games. Aside from the remaining struggles in games against their peers in the top six, the reds have typically had enough firepower and overall quality to overcome the lower ranked sides in the division. Having dispatched Newcastle at Old Trafford with a score of 4-1 in December, it was a fair assumption that an away victory should be achieved with minimal fuss. With the exception of an abysmal away defeat to Huddersfield back in October, United have an excellent record away from home against teams in the bottom half.
This Newcastle team are quite rightly regarded as a mediocre side in the Premier League. They raised their game for the visit of their traditional Manchester rivals, which is to be expected, and produced a committed and passionate performance, but with the exception of the sporadic Jonjo Shelvey, they lack any genuine quality. They did, though, outwork Manchester United. They won the vast majority of 50/50 challenges, flew into tackles, dominated the aerial battles, and maintained their discipline throughout. They made more sprints – 553 compared to 490, ran further – 115km to 105km (source Opta), and took their chance when it came.
Manchester United could argue that they did enough to win the game. They had 64% of possession, 13 shots on goal including 4 on target, and 10 corners to none. On another day Martial would have converted one of his excellent chances, or Michael Carrick’s late effort would have snatched a draw, but you could not claim United were unlucky. The reality is that, after relative dominance in the first half, the second half developed into an even contest that went Newcastle’s way. They should have had a penalty after a clumsy Chris Smalling challenge, and ultimately took their chance due to a greater desire to win an aerial challenge and reacting to the loose ball.
It is easy to catastrophise this result. The fact is that this result is an anomaly as opposed to a trend. The focus now must be on ensuring that performance levels raise, and efforts of opponents are matched for the remainder of the season. With any thoughts of the title long gone, it is vital to try and cement second position in the league with Liverpool and Spurs both gaining momentum. A strong finish to the season is vital to lead into the next campaign, and Mourinho must ensure this is a temporary blip in form.
2. Mourinho was unusually magnanimous
“My verdict is we could’ve been here for 10 hours and not scored a goal. Newcastle played with their lives and defended with their lives” stated United’s manager after the game. “I know Newcastle players and fans and Benitez, everyone connected with the club is very, very happy with the three points. The gods of football were with them, so at least I have that little smile”.
He gave numerous post-match interviews where he was effusive in his praise for Rafa Benitez’s side, which in truth does not tally with the Mourinho we have come to know during his tenure at Old Trafford. It is not in his DNA to accept defeat so readily, and he certainly didn’t sport the appearance of a calm and reflective individual when patrolling his technical area.
Mourinho likes to use the media to distract attention away from his own failings or that of his team. There is no doubt, even in his own mind reflected by the changes he made during the game, that Mourinho got his tactics and starting line up wrong. The balance of the team, which was the same line up as the crushing defeat against Spurs at Wembley, feels like an effort to accommodate the best players, as opposed to the most effective team unit.
The balance of the attack is wrong, and the midfield was completely out-numbered, in that it only consisted of Nemanja Matic. Mourinho changed his entire midfield unit, withdrawing Pogba, Matic and Lingard for Carrick, McTominay and Mata. This provided a greater measure of control and solidity, but it was too late in the game.
This moved Mourinho to praise his opponent to avoid discussing the failings of his team, and more significantly, his own failings. He is right that he faced an inspired opposition, a useful goalkeeper, and a raucous fan base, but that is to be expected. There were too many inadequacies in the United team, and that allowed Newcastle the incentive to chase three points. When Newcastle hosted Man City, they literally played for a point due to their fear of what City are capable of on the counter attack. United have individuals who can provide moments of magic, but they lack the cohesion to instil that same fear into their opponents.
3. Smalling took a dive
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have had a poor couple of weeks, and they looked shaky throughout this contest. Smalling in particular had a bad day at the office, and unfortunately is earning a reputation as something of a liability. He won just 53% of his aerial contests, was lucky to escape conceding a penalty following a clumsy first half challenge on the corner of the area, and taking a dive to receive a booking a concede the free kick that led to the goal summed up his performance. I genuinely cannot recall a centre back being booked for diving, and it was the latest in the regular series of blunders every United fan know he is capable of.
The fact that Phil Jones is also experiencing a clear dip in form – at times he looks as graceful as a toddler on stilts – has an impact on the whole team. The distribution from the back consisted as long, unsuccessful hoofs up the pitch from David De Gea, and unfortunately this is inevitable with this likeable but ultimately very limited centre back pairing.
Compared to United’s previous pairings during eras of dominance: Bruce and Pallister, Stam and Johnsen, Vidic and Ferdinand; Chris Smalling increasingly does not look up to the task. Mourinho’s successful sides have always been built on a solidity at the back, and the defensive unit is something that, unfortunately, looks like it will need further investment to get right.
4. The Pogba Problem
Paul Pogba was immediately withdrawn following the Newcastle goal, having failed to even contest the header inside his own box. He was hooked at Wembley after a miserable display against Spurs, and he was left out of the side in the last game at home to Huddersfield. Up until now, Mourinho viewed him as indispensable. To take him off when chasing a game would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago.
Mourinho appears to be making a point. Having recently signed a contract extension, perhaps he feels empowered? Perhaps he now feels he has the political power to let his erstwhile talisman know that he must do what is asked of him or he will not be in the side.
In recent weeks, Pogba has received some stinging criticism. Graeme Souness commented on Sky Sports that Pogba “plays like a schoolboy running after the ball in the playground”. Gary Neville added “He has that schoolboy-ish feeling of always wanting to be on the ball; the kid who, in the playground, when you are defending, is always looking to get free”.
This cannot be denied. Unless Pogba can be moulded and adapt his game, he cannot be relied upon to perform a disciplined role in the centre of midfield. Mourinho persists in selecting him as a deep lying midfielder in a pair with Matic. From looking at his heat maps, Pogba has performed this role in name only. He pops up where the wind takes him. He is an instinctive player who does not consider it his duty to track other midfield runners or play a safe sideways pass to retain possession. He is eye-catching, dynamic, exciting, and absolutely brimming with talent, but he is not performing to his potential in this position. Evidence thus far makes it seem unlikely that this will change, which means that either Mourinho will have to accommodate him in a different system, or they will continue on a collision course like they have been over the last few games.
We are not privy to the conversations on the training ground or in the dressing room, but it is clear for all to see that Pogba works best when given a free licence to roam. His best performance of the season by a distance came at Goodison Park when he was on the left of a midfield three alongside Matic and Herrera. Surely Mourinho must recognise that this is what gets the best from his most expensive acquisition? Benitez himself accommodated Steven Gerrard who at his peak, boasted similar athleticism and attacking threat, but little positional discipline. Alex Ferguson accommodated Cristiano Ronaldo in the same way.
Paul Pogba came off and looked like the life had been sapped out of him on Sunday afternoon. Moving forward, Mourinho must make a decision to either accommodate him, or persevere with a battle of wills with Pogba that he is unlikely to win. There are only so many players in the world with talent like Pogba, but perhaps Mourinho favours structure over individuality.
5. The attack lacks cohesion
The added attacking impetus of Alexis Sanchez is obviously a tremendous acquisition for Manchester United, and few will have any doubt that he will be key to any success the club will have moving forward. However, he is one hugely talented individual amongst many. There is still a lack of balance and harmony in attack.
On Sky Sports, Gary Neville stated “The individual talent is there but to co-ordinate that into a team is Jose Mourinho’s job in the next few months. He has to make them into a team”. Deep into Mourinho’s second season at the club, and there is no defined style to how the team play. With the talent available, players show their ability in flashes, but they do not convince as an attacking unit.
There is still an evident lack of understanding between players in terms of playing to their strengths. Romelu Lukaku has many qualities, but he is simply not an effective target man. As the minutes ticked down towards 90, United reverted to pumping balls into the box which Newcastle’s defence were clearing with ease every time. It is a Plan B that works when Marouane Fellaini is on causing chaos, but when he is not there, there is no value in playing this frantic hoof ball.
Anthony Martial had chances to score, but it is clear he is not at ease playing on the right-hand side to accommodate Sanchez. Mourinho will seek to find the right combinations of players in the coming weeks, but we know enough by now to recognise that the players will largely have to play off instinct and improvisation in attack as opposed to any defined patterns of play.
Next up for United is a trip away to Huddersfield in the FA Cup 6th round, in a competition of added importance given the dominance of Manchester City. It is vital that confidence is restored and there is a return to winning ways.