October 2021 against Tottenham Hotspur. More than 2 years ago. That was the last time that Manchester United were able to defeat a top 8 opponent away from Old Trafford.
The irony is that the current season is eerily mirroring that fateful 2021/22 season where the foundations built in finishing top 4 the previous season seems to be faint distant memory and the familiar failings and issues are rising from the ashes once more: Marcus Rashford’s alarming drop in form, questions about the players’ commitment to the manager and the badge, questions regarding the summer signings and the insipid performances on the pitch.
More than 2 years later and Erik Ten Hag’s men find their streak of away losses to top 8 sides extended with a limp display at St James’ Park to Eddie Howe’s rising Newcastle United outfit. Newcastle United were easily worth their win and arguably the gap between the two teams was greater than the modest score line suggests.
Here we analyse the three takeaways from United’s defeat at St James’ Park in the Premier League:
United’s attack was toothless - and Rashford sticks out like a sore thumb
In the opening 15 minutes, Bruno Fernandes managed to hit two clean through balls for Alejandro Garnacho to latch onto but unfortunately, the young Argentine was unable to add to his recent goal tally with either opportunity.
That was shockingly about it for United’s attack until the last 5 minutes of the game where United gave Nick Pope and his defence something to think about.
For the 70 minutes in between, it was all Newcastle United as United struggled to maintain any form of possession and generated next to nothing in attack. On the rare moments that they received the ball in Newcastle’s half, the home side pressed relentlessly or United’s own attackers gave the ball back cheaply.
The decision to start Anthony Martial over Rasmus Hojlund was peculiar in spite of the Frenchman finding the net against Everton. Martial is a player who can no longer access one of his best attributes which was his acceleration and in not being able to do so eliminates his ability to move quickly clear of his defender to present himself as a passing option or break free to attack. In terms of his pressing, he seems reluctant to go in to harder when closing down his man therefore rendering Martial’s overall contribution to his team a rather mute discussion.
The lynchpin of United’s attack from last season, Marcus Rashford, was withdrawn on 61 minutes with his team still down a goal and in spite of all the good he did last season, like many others in the squad, his credit points are expending at a rapid rate.
In the first half, Rashford offered nothing offensively and also carelessly gave the ball away whilst also failing to track the runs of Livramento. This left Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan Bissaka exposed time and time again on the right side. It was clear Erik Ten Hag recognised this too as Rashford noticeably marked Livramento a lot closer after half time before his withdrawal.
Defending has never been a forte of his game and Rashford is a player whose goal scoring and match winning feats demand a certain luxury from the grind of defensive work but when you are playing poorly and results are not falling the way of your team, this luxury is a lot less forgiving and perhaps Rashford would do well to realise that running back to help your team is something that would never be looked down upon.
Rashford needs to look no further than to the opposite side of the field for an example as, for all his youthful inexperience and poor defensive positioning, Garnacho at least always puts his head down when he loses his man to sprint and close down the space to take away time from the opposition.
United’s number 10 is a man searching for answers to his game and form on the ball at the moment. It is a stark contrast to the player we saw last season. He will have to search for answers as to how to find that man again, but perhaps a good place to start is by at least putting in some form of effort off the ball.
United’s midfield was massacred by the Toons
Newcastle’s key attacking strategy was simple enough in the game: outwork and overlap United constantly and challenge them to work hard to track back and defend. The punchline of this strategy is reflected in the dominant display by Eddie Howe’s team.
United’s attack and midfield were found wanting consistently and it was no surprise that Newcastle’s goal came from Kieran Trippier making an overlap run to send a low ball across Andre Onana’s penalty box for Anthony Gordon to find the back of the net. It was particularly damning that two other Newcastle players could have found the net. Such was the lack of effort of United’s midfielders to run back when possession was lost.
For all of the praise sent his way against Everton, Kobbie Mainoo was always going to be experience the inevitable down performance that is expected of a young player as he was correctly identified by Eddie Howe as the key to United’s ball movement and marked out of the game accordingly.
Mainoo has learnt a valuable lesson here and it is up to him to now go away and grow from this experience. United and their fans will be patient with him given his early promise and afford him the time to grow.
The same leeway cannot be afforded to his midfield colleague in Scott McTominay.
The Scotsman has found himself in a strange role for the team this season as a quasi attacking midfielder, striker, goal poacher, midfielder and target man hybrid where his demand is seemingly to just find goals for the team, something which he has done four times this season.
McTominay will always be a player who will be viewed through a different optics when he isn’t producing moments as his current justication for a place in the starting eleven is exactly that: moments.
He is a player who can sometimes produce a goal out of nothing. He doesn’t show for passes, doesn’t play passes either and now doesn’t even fight for 50/50 balls, something that his game could at least be complimented for in previous years. A Filippo Inzaghi in midfield if I may.
With Mainoo marked out of the game, the gap in midfield left by McTominay becomes more apparent and Ten Hag must ask himself is the gamble for McTominay to produce his moments worth the void that he leaves as an option in midfield.
Rashford was mentioned earlier as a player who is afforded a certain, albeit waning, luxury for his ability to produce game changing moments but at the bare minimum at least he is comfortable with the ball at his feet. The same being said for Bruno Fernandes. Both at least they demand the ball whilst McTominay does not provide his team that option so at what point does there become too many players afforded the same latitude in one team. Right now, there is one too many.
Maguire and Shaw were put to work and put on solid displays
Perhaps two players who could make a case that they didn’t deserve to be on the end of a losing side were Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw. Two players who were roundly criticised in the 2021/22 season mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Both men played positively and if not for them, the margin of the score line would have been deservedly greater for the Eddie Howe’s men. Shaw was the only defender who was able to combat the Newcastle press in the first half and played the ball out relatively well enough but ultimately there was only so much he can do with few passing options available in midfield as Newcastle adapted and pressed him.
On the half hour mark, Shaw sprinted back to track the run of Joelinton when Mainoo lost his man and Maguire found himself and Wan Bissaka caught countless times in the first half in dangerous scenarios due to Rashford failing to track Livramento. However, he was able to either slow down the attack, take a smart foul or get his foot to a pass to disrupt the Newcastle’s attacking pattern enough to halt momentum.
They were both a part of the defence that conceded Gordon’s goal and it was a result of Luke Shaw forcing a play and giving the ball away but he is a wing back playing out of position in the middle of the defence as a passing option. It does not mask the error but there were plenty good things that Shaw did in the game alongside Maguire that kept the score line respectable which is more than what could be said for his teammates.
Ten Hag called for resilience and unity at the end of the game and at the moment his side are neither united in their playing style or their efforts. With games coming against Chelsea, Bayern and a trip to Liverpool in three of their next four fixtures, United will need to answer his call sooner rather than later.