By Nathan Thomas.
It is safe to say that many Manchester United supporters went into this afternoon’s game against Newcastle with a reasonable amount of trepidation. Calling upon painful memories of last season’s fixture at St. James’ Park – where United’s midfield was steam-rolled as the team crashed to a 3-0 defeat – allied to recent indifferent performances left an uncomfortable feeling.
Newcastle’s midfield possesses so much physical enforcement that it was hard to see a way in which United could muster some form of control over the game. However, as has often been the case down the years United pulled an excellent performance out of the bag when few expected that they would. Ferguson opted to sacrifice width to pack the midfield and stifle the aforementioned ‘Geordie’ brutes such as messrs Tiote, Ba and Cisse.
United kept the ball extremely well and the first twenty minutes was some of the most cutting football the Reds have produced in a long while – certainly away from home. Although at times they could have done with an outlet on the flanks, it didn’t detract from what was nothing short of a commanding display. Rafael and Evra worked tirelessly to make up for the lack of out-and-out wingers, however as has oft been the case this season they did not shirk their defensive duties with all of the back four pulling out sterling displays. Under-fire Evra, who endured another ‘patchy’ performance mid-week against Cluj, responded defiantly by not only notching his fourth goal for the club to put United two up but putting in easily his best display in two years.
After Evra had followed fellow defender Jonny Evans in getting on the score sheet – making it 2-0 to United – Newcastle boss Alan Pardew brought an extra man into midfield to try and haul back some control. This it did with Newcastle finishing the half on top. However, in spite of this shift in control United never looked on the ropes; recent fixtures have resembled something akin to ‘The Alamo’ – particularly against Liverpool. Wayne Rooney, operating in a deeper role, was utterly outstanding. His reading of the game has certainly matured in recent years and Ferguson can now trust the rumbustious Scouser in an area which requires positional discipline. He was an asset not only in attack – notching his fourth assist in three games – but also in defence where he tracked back mercilessly helping out his team mates. Tom Cleverley’s introduction was also one of great importance. Aside from his stunning goal/wonky cross his energy helped to quell any charges from the home team. United’s midfield has often contained the likes of Scholes and Giggs this season and as good as the two are/have been they haven’t got the legs when it comes marshalling the likes of Cabaye and Tiote.
Ferguson should also be commended for making excellent changes at the right time. Bringing Antonio Valencia on when Newcastle were beginning to show signs of staging an unlikely revival was as shrewd as it was pivotal. It gave United some much-needed width and the impact was clear from the offset. It stretched Newcastle for the first time in the match and as a result made their attacks more sporadic. Cleverley’s third goal was all-important in killing the tie as Newcastle did look like they had a goal in them, particularly from crosses and set-pieces with David de Gea looking suspect at best. The goalkeeping position is an issue for Ferguson. In Lindegaard and the young Spaniard De Gea he has too very good goalkeepers who possess a certain amount of excellent attributes – although neither is the full package. Where Lindegaard poses a more physical presence, his shot stopping is inferior to that of de Gea. Consistency is surely the key as far as de Gea is concerned; it is no coincidence that his best run of play for United came in the latter part of last season when he was played every week with Lindegaard being out injured.
Still, Ferguson seems quite content with chopping and changing between the sticks – something that does not sit well with all supporters. With United looking pretty fragile at the back this year, the wider consensus amongst Reds is that changing the goalkeeper can only have an unsettling affect – an argument certainly not without foundation. However, it is not unlikely that de Gea may cost United points this year – on another day it could have been at St. James’ Park this afternoon. Luckily, he had the imperious Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans who proved to be the ‘immovable object’ against what was an unusually impotent Newcastle strike force. To see the former of the aforementioned pair pull out another excellent display was particularly pleasing. Cries of ‘he’s finished’ were to be heard rippling through the evening air outside Old Trafford after last week’s defeat by Spurs; a cry that I found utterly ridiculous. These cries of dissent came only a week after Ferdinand dominated the on-surge from a Liverpool side with the bit between their teeth; football fans are famed for their fickle nature and it certainly showed last week. It is without doubt that Ferdinand is nearing the end, but there is life in the old dog yet. He might not have the pace he once had, but he is intelligent enough to adapt.
Overall, it is difficult not to be pleased with today’s display. Yes, we are not quite there yet but we are undeniably clicking into gear. Notwithstanding any bad luck injury wise during the International break, we should be well readied to face a couple of tasty looking fixtures on the return to club action. The season… is really getting going.
Latest Manchester United 2012-13 statistics.
Register with the Stretford End Arising forum.