Following the atrocious start Manchester United have made to their Premier League campaign this season, emphatically topped off with the 6-1 humbling by Tottenham at Old Trafford two weeks ago, it was hard to look ahead to the upcoming fixtures and foresee many victories. Performance levels against Jose Mourinho’s men were nothing short of a disgrace. The players looked bereft of confidence, and in some cases, completely disinterested in performing their most basic duties. This victory against a well organised Newcastle was, therefore, a welcome and vital result. It wasn’t as straightforward as the score-line suggests, but there is no doubt the better side won the game. Here are five things we learned:
1. Confidence is incredibly fragile
A solid start to the next game following a 6-1 defeat is a pre-requisite. Keep it tight for the first quarter, take few risks, and compete for everything. When Luke Shaw expertly turned a non-threatening ball into the box into his own net after 102 seconds, it felt like yet another new low. The confidence of Solskjaer’s players visibly drained from them, in what was the worst, most calamitous start imaginable. Shaw has already endured a wretched start to the campaign, as his replacement Alex Telles was watching on, presumably disapprovingly, from the dug-out.
It has been a consistent factor for Manchester United sides since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, that their self-belief has been brittle and subject to lingering doubt. It took several minutes for the side to regain composure, as the narrative for the season was moving swiftly towards implosion. Credit must be awarded, then, for the fact that the team managed to assert authority and dominance for the vast majority of the rest of this game.
Manchester United enjoyed 64% of the possession, and amassed 28 shots on goal with 14 on target. They had 7 corners – Newcastle had none. They also missed a (generously awarded) penalty, which was surprisingly passed up by perhaps the only player in the squad with unfailing self-confidence in Bruno Fernandes, who had scored all of his previous penalties since arriving back in January. The final score did not flatter the side in red, but it certainly appeared, as the clock ticked toward the 86th minute, that this game may be added to a long list of draws and missed opportunities that we have seen since Solskjaer took the reins. The emphatic nature of the late flurry of goals is evidence that confidence can return almost as quickly as it disappears.
2. The team selection offered balance
On Tuesday night in Paris, Manchester United will have the option of selecting or restoring Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood, Paul Pogba, Alex Telles, Edinson Cavani, and Donny Van de Beek, amongst others. All could justifiably feel they should be selected, and it is no bad thing to have strength-in-depth available. The side selected to take on Newcastle, though, offered more balance and coherence than we have seen in the past few weeks.
There were five changes to the side that embarrassed themselves against Spurs – none could have complained if all 11 had faced the axe. The biggest casualty was Paul Pogba, who has had a particularly dreadful start to the campaign. Solskjaer turned to his established keeper and back four, with a midfield pivot of Fred and Scott McTominay in front of them. This was not Solskjaer’s best side in terms of individual talent. Instead, he turned to the players he knew would carry out their role in the team diligently and outwork their opponents. The shape of the team with both Pogba and Fernandes, alongside the immobile Nemanja Matic has looked chaotic. The reasons for this are difficult to discern, as this combination performed excellently after the return from lockdown. However, mentality is a massive factor in football, and too many of the side were neglecting their duties. Some of these bigger names had been cruising through games, not taking responsibility, not tracking runners, and surrendering possession too easily. It was important for the Norwegian manager to make a statement with his team selection that this is unacceptable. Talent is worth nothing if not backed up with the necessary industry and fortitude.
McTominay and Fred are generally safer in possession and offer less penetrative passing. They do, though, offer tireless work rate, and an effective shield to the back line. They compliment each other well, and this is why Solskjaer has turned to this combination that worked well on many occasions last season. It will be interesting to see what selection he opts for in the coming weeks.
Dan James was another surprise selection on the left side of the attack, and he repaid his manager’s faith with a performance of tireless running and unquestioned industry, even if he still has significant shortcomings in terms of his attacking output and technical ability. It was clear Solskjaer wanted to press Newcastle high up the pitch and employ a high defensive line, and James contributed well to this game plan. He covered a lot of ground and is at base level an honest player who will perform the high intensity pressing that was asked of him. He also offers searing pace on the transition which caused Newcastle issues. There is no doubt, however, that he needs to develop the technical side of his game if he hopes to ever again be considered a regular, but it was pleasing to see some confidence restored in the Welsh youngster. As Solskjaer said to the BBC following the game: “It’s about the team working for each other pressing from the front. Dan has incredible speed on the counter and today he showed more positivity, he trusted himself.”
3. Manchester United look a better side with Juan Mata
Juan Mata has become one of the less fashionable players in the squad in recent seasons. He lacks the physical attributes of his younger, faster, and stronger cohorts. He has never been gifted with exceptional pace or power. He does, though, have almost unrivalled technical ability, and offers intelligence of movement that is vital in trying to break down a stubborn low block. Mata was nominally deployed on the right side of the attack and closed out the game playing centrally in the ‘number 10’ role. He explores space in a way that no other United attacker, other than perhaps Bruno Fernandes, is able to. His experience gives him a calmness and assurance that his eager young counterparts often lack. He makes the attack more fluid and unpredictable, and has the technique to play incisive, quick passes. Much of United’s play this season has been too slow and predictable. During the better spells at St James’ Park, Mata was at the heart of the quick inter-changes of pass in and around the penalty area that Newcastle struggled to cope with.
There is definitely an argument that Juan Mata should be included in the side in games where Manchester United expect to dictate the play and dominate possession. He doesn’t offer the counter-attacking ability, of Rashford, Martial, or Greenwood, and offers little in protecting his full back, but he does seem to knit things together and when played, has consistently provided a sizable return in terms of goals and assists.
4. Harry Maguire justified his place
Following on from one of the most disastrous defensive displays Old Trafford has ever seen last time out, Maguire looked even more broken and disconsolate as he trudged off at Wembley in midweek having been given his marching orders against Denmark. The £80 million defender has been worse than abysmal so far this season for reasons that are not clear. His arrest in Greece has presumably had a massively detrimental impact, as his form has fallen off a cliff.
At the best of times, Maguire can seem lumbering and slow, but the fact is he did contribute to a much-improved defensive record for United last season. His huge transfer fee can and has been questioned, but there is no doubt that he has been a good leader and has provided some stability at the heart of the Manchester United back line. This season, though, he has looked a shadow of that player, and it was thought in many circles that Solskjaer would show him some mercy by removing him from the firing line with talk of an ‘injury’. It was felt he needed time out of the spotlight to get his head together. He has been embarrassingly off the pace.
Credit goes to Solskjaer for persisting with his captain, as he has done in every league game since he signed him. Maguire is a player, and maybe more so a character, who has gained the unwavering trust of his manager. When he rose to head in his first half equaliser, he seemed to restore some of his own confidence along with that of his team. He is dominant in the air and should score more goals of this ilk. From that moment, he displayed his strengths as United were largely untroubled in defence following the opening shaky moments.
There is a long way to go to prove that he has re-discovered his form – even at his best he isn’t impervious – but this was a good display from the United captain ahead of the very stiff tests to come in the following weeks.
5. Bruno Fernandes is the transformative player
Bruno Fernandes has been a revelation for this club since his arrival. In a week where there were stories he is already unhappy at the club, and had lost confidence in his manager following an alleged dressing room bust-up, he underscored his elite mentality to deliver the three points for his side. He also showed a bullishness in rubbishing the media reports of his dissent, re-affirming his dedication to Solskjaer and to his club.
Fernandes remains the player who makes things happen for his team. He does not shirk responsibility at times when other players may retreat into themselves. The penalty miss midway through the second half could have proven decisive. It was strange to see Fernandes miss from the spot as it has seemed to have become a formality once a penalty is awarded, such is his mastery from 12 yards. However, he kept demanding the ball, seeking to create chances and take shots when the opportunities arose. The three points were vital, and he knew it. There is little doubt he is a prickly character on the pitch, and at times hot-tempered with his teammates. Those attributes are exactly what is needed in this side, which too often lacks courage and conviction. His winning goal was taken emphatically, and he is increasingly on the same wavelength with his colleagues, who clearly look to his as their talisman.
Speaking to MEN following the game, he highlighted his leadership qualities by reserving praise for the excellent Marcus Rashford: “I think it (the second goal) was a great goal, but I think Rashford deserved [a big part of it]. He did what we train; overlapped for me, came inside, a little touch, gave me a great pass and left me alone with the goalkeeper to do the rest. He deserved credit.”
Rashford did indeed also have an excellent game playing as a central striker, ending with two assists and a goal. He showed composure and awareness, and was another player who returned to form having endured some early season struggles.
This ended up as a very positive display at a time when Solskjaer most needed it. It also shows how the narrative can so quickly shift several times over the course of 90 minutes – the margins in football are small. Solskjaer claimed that “the season starts now”. Obviously, he will be keen to shake off the disastrous start to the campaign and build on this morale-boosting win against an organised and spirited Newcastle. Improvement, though, must continue on a very steep incline in order to come away from Paris with anything. This team shape, work ethic, and latterly finishing was certainly an overdue step in the right direction.
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