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With City beating Liverpool yesterday, United had to win at Newcastle – something they’ve done fairly often – in order to keep the pressure on their rivals. A response to the Blackburn result was needed for United whilst Newcastle’s own lacklustre display at Anfield couldn’t be repeated. Ferdinand returned along with Giggs and Rooney whilst Lindegaard was chosen in goal.
Below, we discuss the talking points and invite Newcastle fans as well as United fans to join in the discussion.
Lindegaard in as De Gea is dropped
On Friday at his pre-match press conference, Fergie quite firmly stated that he’d play De Gea in goal against both Blackburn and Newcastle. De Gea went on to have a poor game and was one of the factors resulting in a home defeat to Blackburn.
When the team was announced today, Lindegaard was in goal. Amazingly, Fergie had gone against his word and to the surprise of many he even admitted he’d dropped De Gea because of his mistakes. Lindegaard would go on to have a decent enough game – he could do nothing about Ba’s stunning finish, nor Cabaye’s perfect free kick; however he was partly at fault for a communication break-down for the third goal.
I’ve stated before that it’s my belief that De Gea will go on to have a fabulous career at United; I’ve also said that the only way he’ll learn is to be played and get the mistakes out of his system. However, we need a bit of consistency between the stick – if for now, Anders is the right man for the job, then so be it. Give him a period of games in goal and bring De Gea back in when the time is right.
Too many poor performers (again)
Park – there are games that are made for him, that bring out his best attributes – work-rate most obviously. Tonight would have been perfect for him had United taken the lead however once the game was being chased, Park’s attacking abilities were rendered somewhat useless. He’s a better player going forward than he gets credit for but his crossing was poor and he wasn’t getting high enough up the pitch. Despite trying to hold a wide position, his natural instinct is to cut inside and it forced United to play too narrow at times.
Rooney – one of the most forgettable Rooney displays ever which culminated in seeing him subbed off. His movement was poor, his touch often dreadful and his general involvement and enthusiasm was missing. I maintain that when he’s paired with Welbeck, he’s better. As soon as Danny came on and made good runs, space appeared for Rooney. Was a classic ‘moan at everyone else’ Rooney night.
Berbatov – six goals in his previous three appearances was enough to earn him a third consecutive start. His contribution though was minimal. With the exception of a header on goal, he only touched the ball once in the final third of the pitch. His lack of urgency and general deep position gave neither Giggs nor Carrick much to aim at when in possession. Unsurprisingly, United’s game was expanded, stretched and moved higher up the pitch when Welbeck replaced him. Neat touches and sublime control aside, Berbatov proved exactly why Fergie’s left him out in the bigger games this season.
Nani – when he’s good he’s unplayable but when he’s not it shows how important he is to us. Tonight certainly ranks in the “poor” column. It wasn’t so much for him being selfish or not working hard but more that his final ball was awful. He attempted 8 crosses and only one found a United player – most were blocked by the first or second defender. Had it not been for the three players already mentioned having poor games, Fergie may well have considered putting Rafael at right back and moving Valencia onto the right wing with Nani taking an early bath.
Jones – another game at centre back, with another partner, and another poor performance. Jones’ start at United has been exciting but his performances at centre back have hit home that there’s much he has to improve on. Previously it’s been a case of poor positioning and awareness of where opposition strikers are; today though, as it was against Blackburn, he couldn’t handle physical opponents (Ameobi and Ba).
Chalkboard 1: Ferdinand and Jones tackles
Jones never seemed sure whether to commit to a tackle and get close or allow Ba/Ameobi the chance to try and control a ball before committing. Either way, it failed him on 7 out of 15 occasions. Fit again Ferdinand though showed Jones just how to do it, winning all of his tackles.
Hard-working, high-pressing from Newcastle wins the game
Newcastle’s victory came as a result of a hard-working team display. The tone was set by Ba and Ameobi who harassed and harried Ferdinand and Jones every time they were in possession.
Chalkboard 2: Ameobi and Ba tackling heatmap
The heatmap above shows just how high up the pitch Ameobi and Ba attempted their tackles – 100% within the United half and 80% of Ameobi’s in the final third of the pitch. It meant that Newcastle forced Jones and Ferdinand into either long balls or a pass back to Lindegaard to clear. Effectively, Newcastle choked United and where possible cut-out the middle men, Carrick and Giggs.
The desire to win the ball back and in general not allow United space continued past the strikers into the midfield. United’s wingers were often doubled-up on and in the middle a new challenge faced United – two very different styles of defensive play. Tiote was excellent, getting at United players fast and snapping away whereas Cabaye chose not to engage in physical contact but merely faced up to the United midfield, forcing them to try and play around him.
In defence, Newcastle chose to mix-up their strategy. They pressed high when United had the ball deep, squeezing the space available but when United had the ball in their half, they dropped deep, getting everyone back and ensuring no space behind them could be exploited.
The result of it all was that Newcastle became the first side in the league to keep a clean sheet against United and perfectly exemplified a couple of things. The first, worryingly is just how easy it’s becoming for teams to defend against United – men behind the ball works because United’s forwards are somewhat inconsistent and opposition sides are getting better players. Secondly, and the myth exists, teams always raise their game against United – we’re still their (plural) biggest game of the season and that automatically tends to raise performance levels.
It would be wrong not to praise Ba after he tormented United. I never realised just how all-rounded he was – big but fully aware of how best to use his frame and he’s quick as well. His touch is excellent and both his hold-up play and link-up very good. His goal was a beautiful finish, it came from a nothing long-ball and whilst Ferdinand may be angry with himself, criticism would seem harsh for what was such an instinctive shot.
As United fell behind and had to chase the game, Ba profited. United committed men forward and huge gaps started to appear between the midfield and defence. Newcastle’s long-ball policy worked a dream as both Ba and Ameobi were able to latch onto almost everyone knowing that they had so much space around them.
What next for United?
As ever, there is something of a circus when United lose, let alone lose two games in a row. My dad who at best is a part-time football fan text me saying “I see United are in a crisis” – he wasn’t trying to wind me up but because of the success United have had, that’s the response of so many fans, both those who support the club and those, like my dad who don’t!
If United are “falling apart” (another phrase he used later on) then City who are just three points ahead must be creaking too. The reality check is that whilst United have flaws, we’re somehow still in a fight at the right end of the table (and that’s with all the injuries we’ve had too).
I know it’s hard for many to accept, especially because it’s used a lot, but this is a ‘transition’ side and may well be for another 18-24 months. It’s the phasing out of certain players and the phasing in of others, some of whom are yet to even make their PL debuts. We have no divine right to win every tournament every year, we of course expect to be competitive, but we can’t always be the best. We’ve been there before and we’ve seen how Fergie has re-built and ultimately gone on to win domestic and European trophies.
The centre midfielder issue remains, and probably won’t go away any time soon. Fergie clearly has faith in youngsters like Pogba and Tunnicliffe but they’re not ready yet and the reality is, some kind of good enough stop-gap (maybe Parker?) should have been acquired. Yet many forget that this side who apparently are rubbish and need revamping, were “amazing” only a few weeks ago after QPR and Fulham. Let’s not even begin to consider where we might be had it not been for all the injuries we’ve had. Our squad’s not great but it’s certainly not as bad as many try to make out that it is.
I wouldn’t say I have blind-faith; I’m not an eternal optimist but I think I try to be a realist where possible and right now I believe in the project that we have going on. I fully support our youth players and think some will have good careers at the club. I think that in the Da Silvas, Smalling, Jones, Cleverley, Welbeck etc we have exciting youngsters. It’s just a case of adding a marquee signing maybe to it all and allowing time for maturity before we hopefully will reap the rewards again of another Fergie-team. Patience is very rare in modern football but United fans have been good at it in the past, and may have to do so again now.
United missed the chance to put pressure on City and now have only a three point gap to Spurs who have a game in hand after a heavy 3-0 defeat at Newcastle. For once the team consisted of a more familiar midfield and defence but still lacked some balance.
The early exchanges and first half in general was fairly even with neither side creating any kind of opening – Berbatov’s deflected header hit the post and a moment of quality from Ba gave Newcaslte the half time lead. Ba’s goal arrived as Jones was beaten too easily in the air by Ameobi and his flick moved the ball into Ba’s stride and his volley nestled in past Lindegaard.
The second goal was the real killer as a Jones foul gave away a free kick 30 yards out which Cabaye expertly dispatched – again, no chance for Lindegaard. Jones ensured he played a part in every Newcastle goal by mis-judging a long kick from Krul late on and putting it into his own net as he failed to note that Lindegaard had moved.
A dour performance was only made worse by United’s attacking ineptness and a lack of thrust until Welbeck’s arrival – although by then the damage was already done. Next up is a trip to Man City in the FA Cup on Sunday. Realistically, United could lose three in a row but if ever there was a team to stop the run of defeats against, it must be City! Onwards and upwards – our faith and patience is going to continue to be tested!