Newcastle United 0-3 Man United: Fergie’s new system works a treat!

Jonny Evans celebrates opening the scoring against Newcastle United

Authors: Sleepy Nik and Doron

Follow Nik and Doron on Twitter

United’s struggle at Newcastle last season was fresh in the minds of fans and probably players ahead of the annual trip to St James’ Park. United’s form has been patchy and following the defeat against Spurs last weekend, a response was needed. Newcastle had defensive injuries and were missing their first choice goalkeeper as well as both centre backs. Still, their front six meant that this was a game that couldn’t be taken lightly. We welcome comments from both sets of supporters.

Fergie finds the right formula

Like any good scientific experiment, patience and a period of testing, often reaps rewards. Fergie’s love of width and ‘4-4-2’ is well known, and though the manager has tried variations of 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1 at times in the last couple of seasons, it is clear that a reliance on two players hugging the touchline will leave the side vulnerable against teams who are stronger in the centre. A more thorough execution of ‘plan B’ has been the requirement for some time, with United’s European escapade of last season, and indeed against the likes of City, Liverpool and Chelsea, a stark reminder of our imperfections.

This week has seen a noticeable change in approach, with the games against Newcastle in the Capital One Cup and CFR Cluj in the Champions League, allowing the trial of a ‘diamond’ formation (with less onus on traditional wing-play) with a greater focus on possession of the ball, and a more fluid approach in the final third. The key tenets to the set-up today were as follows:

1. Kagawa starts deeper: With Welbeck partnering van Persie in attack and Carrick able to perform in the role he loves best, just in front of the back four and creating from the centre, it allowed Fergie to experiment with Kagawa in a slightly more withdrawn role than he has done so far. In a right of centre position, he was free to work across the pitch with the ball, and to drop deep and work with Rafael at times to combat Ben Arfa. Fergie has apparently been worried about the player looking slightly isolated in games and too far away from the action (through no fault of the Japanese star of course), and wanted him to play with the ball at his feet facing goal.

Today was far from perfect but it was a start. Shinji linked well with Rooney and Welbeck in particular, and worked hard throughout, especially as Ben Arfa was starting to get on the ball just before half-time, and with Rafael looking more exposed as the game went on. He was replaced by Valencia mid-way through the second half, but this was merely a defensive move rather than a reflection of the performance. Kagawa also has the benefit of being able to play to the left, and to the tip of the diamond, and surely by starting just that 10 yards or so deeper, the little magician can start to influence the play in much the same way he did for Dortmund last season.

2. Rooney flourishes in front of two central players and/or behind two strikers: We have continually debated Rooney’s best position at, but what seems to be clear is that the striker relishes a role which isn’t restricted, and in which he can be sure there is defensive cover behind him, and numbers in attack going forwards. Today, Rooney was played at the tip of the diamond and given less restriction than normal (though this could have been due to the fact United were 2-0 up pretty quickly, giving him more confidence and freedom). The corner for Evra’s headed goal (was this a training ploy?) was Rooney’s 5th assist in 3 games, but he offered much more in terms of the team’s overall output.

‘Wazza’ worked backwards, and across the middle, tracking back, winning defensive headers and spraying the ball around the pitch with aplomb. Crucially, he seems to have lost those extra pounds, and his link-play with van Persie is reaping the benefits. This was only the second time the pair have started together, and only the first in which the duo started with Kagawa, and the fluid approach was superb at times. Vitally, each of the front six performed their defensive duties well, creating a five-man midfield when without the ball and pressing the Newcastle defensive and midfield lines astutely, with Rooney setting the example – channelling his natural energy in doing so. Ferguson commented afterwards however, that he did think, ‘Rooney was slightly deeper than I intended’, but it wasn’t a complaint, merely a recognition that there is more finessing of the formation to come.

3. Cleverley given a multiple function and high energy role: Tom has arguably been United’s most consistent central midfielder this term, and has often been dropped in favour of the Carrick-Scholes combination – the mutual understanding being so important with a two-man centre. But significantly, Fergie went with the youngster over the United legend today, and the pay-off was fantastic. Cleverley worked the left of centre channel (and later, the centre of the pitch with Valencia’s introduction and Welbeck’s re-allocation to the left of midfield) superbly, coming inside when on the ball and working back and staying wide when United were without the ball. His natural energy and fitness meant that the effect was three-fold: Cleverley was able to provide a goal threat (he scored, and it was a fluke, but he was in that position), link with Rooney and Kagawa in the centre, but also work in tandem with Evra to nullify the threat of Jonas, Perch and Ba down the Newcastle right.

The United captain, so used to having Nani or Young in front of him, and so often reluctant to assist with defensive duties, would have been thrilled with Cleverley’s intensity and willingness to track his man – the two were superb. This was only the second time the youngster has played this position, and he came off to take the manager’s (and fans’) plaudits. A personal view is that this type of box-to-box role is ideal for the lad, especially if Carrick can share ‘sitting duties’ with a rejuvenated Fletcher. A bold, but natural move from the manager then, and one we need more of.

Certainly, more work will be done on the training ground to refine the shape for tougher opponents, but today United can take heart with the way the formation was executed after (presumably) very little practice at Carrington. We talked mid-week about the need to press with greater intensity and focus if we were to stop conceding first in games, and today was hopefully the start of a more cohesive approach.

300 up for Evra

It is testament to Evra’s consistency and physique that he’s been able to reach 300 games for United in what’s a relatively short period of time. Having seen off competition from Silvestre and Heinze, the left back spot has been his own for the best part of six years – aided by the fact he’s seldom injured. For most of that time he’s been unquestionably one of the club’s top performers, offering a genuine attacking threat down the left but also being able to defend superbly.

Evra’s troubles of late have been well documented – loss of concentration, odd positioning and in general his defensive qualities seem to have waned. The arrival of Buttner seems to be as someone who can be a back-up rather than a replacement but errors have still been rife from Evra. However, as Gary Neville tore him apart in his analysis last week, it didn’t show that Evra actually gets minimal help from his teammates. So often he’s left exposed and made to look the fool when actually with some support, errors can be quite easily prevented.

It seems quite fitting then that on his 300th appearance he produced arguably his best performance for 18 months. Not only was he full of energy going forward and bagged a rare headed goal (for someone who’s so good in the air it’s odd we don’t use him more at set pieces) but defensively he was near perfect. He was quick to get close to Newcastle players, rarely allowing them the chance to run at him. Aided by Cleverley who worked hard to double up with Evra, he was able to put in a performance that was akin to his first five years at the club.

De Gea – the best and the worst

The catch against Cluj, the one late on where he came through players to assertively collect the ball, hinted that maybe de Gea had turned a corner. Or not. Picked for the first time in the league since Fulham at home (maybe because Lindegaard has a knock – he’s been withdrawn from the Danish squad) he was as uncomfortable as ever on high balls. It’s not ‘better’ to catch a ball rather than punch it providing you can do both well but David seems uncertain when he has to go through a bunch of players to do one or the other.

Having opted to punch balls yesterday, he rarely made a clean contact with any. Fergie defended him post game saying there were so many bodies and pointing out that Newcastle’s forwards are very physical. United got away with it yesterday but only just. One flap gave Cisse the chance to head the ball at goal only for de Gea to claw it off the line with a remarkable save. The majority of the ball seemed over the line but not all of it – Fergie to his credit admitted if it was us we’d have felt hard done by but rules are rules and the linesman made a brilliant call on it.

Saves that seem impossible are made possible by de Gea, it’s one very good reason as to why many fans would rather he plays to Anders as those moments can win games. On the other hand, he showed exactly why Anders has been playing as the flapping continued. The answer to me is persistence with de Gea so he can learn and improve but any improvements need to occur consistently rather than in the odd game.

Notable mentions

The work rate of the team was superb and the tone was set early on by the forward players. To win the corner for the first goal, van Persie not only chased a bit of a lost cause but managed to get a shot away to force a save from Harper. His partner, Welbeck, was the star in this respect though. Danny’s finishing needs work but his tireless running and hassling of the Newcastle defenders was excellent. Rarely did they have time on the ball and he ensured they either had to go backwards or play a long ball.

Few clean sheets would have felt quite as satisfying as that. Like Evra, Rafael was near perfect – the right back spot is most certainly his now and having won the player of the month for September, he’s taken his form into October. He seems to have the balance between attack and defence perfect and is doing both to a very high standard.

Evans’ second goal for United may have been the reason that Garth Crooks decided to put him in the BBC team of the week but actually Rio was probably the better of the pair on the day. Both were outstanding – Evans was quick to attack high balls and often brought the ball out of defence as any good ball-playing centre back does.

Rio though was imperious, again. Having had so much bizarre criticism he’s playing some of his best football right now. His ability to read play meant that his tackling was spot on and against powerful forwards he matched them – uncharacteristically jumping early to win headers and being as aggressive as Evans in the air. Like last year, Rio and Jonny are proving to be a super pairing and with the imminent return of Smalling, things are starting to look up at the back.


Goals from corners and another one for Tom Cleverley – who’d have thought it?!

More than anything, it’s a shame that there is now a two week break for international football given that United just put in a performance like that. Newcastle is a hard place to go as shown last season but Fergie got his tactics, selection and substitutes spot on allowing a suitably attacking team to take advantage of Newcastle’s own defensive issues. Next up are Stoke who come to Old Trafford in a couple of weeks.

17 Comments on Newcastle United 0-3 Man United: Fergie’s new system works a treat!

  1. Well done lads….It shows just how far we (Newcastle) still have to come to match the best.

    Very enjoyable game and great banter afterwards in the pub..

    I see Van Persie is still a prick!

  2. Great article guys! You said all i wanted to say… Been our best performance of the season so far,all the players deserve “man of the match” but clevz would mine. GGMU!! TC23

  3. What’s going to happen when our wingers are all fit and available for the stoke game? What formation do you think we will play @ doron

  4. @Machedinho27 – think it depends on the opposition’s system and personnel really. Some teams we need to match them in the middle, some teams we can probably outplay in the middle and others we can take advantage of our effective wide players. Against Stoke I’d have thought it would be best to stretch them and probably play with pace out wide.

  5. Nice 1. I remember last season vs stoke at OT, we absolutely battered them. 1 thing that sticks in my memory is how we dominated the whole game from start to finish. They couldn’t get the ball off us. Scholsey played that day and it was the perfect game for him. They look like they’ve improved a tad bit over the summer so I’m expecting a tougher game though. Fergie has so many players at his disposal this season in all positions except in defense so it’ll be interesting to see what his plans for Welbeck and Kagawa are and what formation suits us best. Though decisions for him to make but I’m sure he’ll relish it. Really rate welbeck as a player! He is top class imo. His finishing may not be the best but besides for that I think he is superb!

    On another note, with vidic out for 2 months and not looking likely to ever be at his best again, why not give the captaincy to Rooney? In my opinion, he’s such a leader on the pitch. Hed be the perfect captain for us.

    Looking forward to the reserve/21’s game tonight! I reckon Buttner might get a game tonight. Would be great to see him in action again. Love watching the reserves and youth teams. Some great talent coming through. Will be good to see the like sof macheda, cole, lingard, petrucci etc, Few players I’d like to single out against southampton on saturday from the U18’s – Ben Pearson is quality! Reminds me of Fletcher in a way! He’s a beast that lad! Never stops running, gives his all and has a real determination about him. Will be great to see how he develops over the years. Daehli impressive again. Great strike by Pereira as well. What a hit! Donald Love also looks a decent player. He played at right back and I though he had a good game all round. Rowley is an absolute beats for that age. He looks like he’s 21/22 already. Will be great to see James Wilson again when he’s recovered from his injury. Looks a top top little player! Makes goalscoring look so easy…and with his left foot as well.

    Roll on 2 weeks. Still buzzing from the win yesterday

  6. This was United’s best performance of the season, but it has been coming. I don’t think it was a coincidence that it was also Rooney’s best performance so far. This system has been used three times now and it has looked a little better each time. Also worth pointing out that it has been used with varying personnel.

    I agree that this is a plan B, which we will see in those games where Sir Alex wants to play it tight and feels the need to compete in the centre of the park. Even in this game though he changed it with the introduction of Valencia who played higher and wider pushing Newcastle back and giving them something to think about. This ultimately lead to the third goal when it had looked like Newcastle might begin to gain the upper hand.

  7. I’d like to see SAF make PlanB his number-one option.

    The up-tempo games this week have been most enjoyable to watch because it seems like PlanB un-shackles the players with the most skill.

  8. Maybe this is more of a plan A- than B. Splitting hairs maybe, but united have always tried to play with width. Problem has been that in recent years we haven’t had the right type of players to play only two in central midfield. This system goes some way to solving that problem. Also our wide players haven’t really fired this season.

    Having said all that it’s nothing new, Sir Alex, ( with the exception of last year), has regularly used a 4-3-3ish shape against Arsenal and with great success generally. I expect to see this system used again at Chelsea in a few weeks, but perhaps not against Stoke.

  9. For me the biggest improvement has been how quickly we regained possession, it was similar to that of the 2nd half against spurs.

    For a long time we have been far too happy to stand off and let opposition players turn and come at us with the ball.
    it’s refreshing to see our players 1st to the ball. If we can keep that side of the game up I have no doubt the stacks of talent and technique we have in Rooney, Kagawa, Cleverly, Nani, Scholes, Anderson, Rafael, Valencia & RVP will shine through.

    Quick one on Evra, part of the piece pointed out how Cleverly provided him with cover which he has not had in some time. Maybe he has always had poor positioning but this was covered by Rooney & Park’s defensive attributes during his ‘pomp’ but he has been exposed over the last 18 months with Young & Nani in front of him on a regular basis.

    Just a tongue in cheek comment. RVP’s 7 goals have only come in 2 games out of 7. If he doesn’t score in the next couple of games will the Berbatov crucifiers be jumping on his back?

  10. @Spyder_Kelly – RE regaining possession; started with Welbeck. His work-rate was unbelievable.

    As for RVP’s goals; erm he’s scored in four games, not two: Fulham, Southampton, Liverpool and Cluj. Also very easy to see that RVP ‘fits’ the way United are trying to play much better than Berba.

  11. You’re right
    Half asleep when I posted part of that.
    I was only thinking of the Cluj & Southampton games for some reason, stand corrected.

    I wasn’t dismissing welbeck’s contribution it’s just a lot of our problems have manifested from the back & midfield lines not being close enough to their opponents and wining that 1st ball. Too often players with lesser ability than ours look better than they are because they are allowed time and space to to face our goal and pick a pass.

    Just another note though do you not think the Berb could have played in this slightly more fluid system with Rooney & Welbeck? Clearly RVP gives us much more I just love watching good technical execution it was probably right place wrong time.

  12. @Spyder_Kelly – I’m not sure to be honest. I think as we’ve already seen at Fulham, he flourishes when he’s the go-to man, when the team play for him in many ways. I’ve also long wondered if he’s one of those players who relishes being better than others and likes to be the star in a lesser team.

  13. It’s funny – last season we battled to find a solution to being dominated in the middle of the park, and yet I don’t think anyone would have thought one potential answer to that actually lay in the purchase of RvP. It was obviously never planned that way, but Sir Alex’s quest to fit Rooney, RvP and Kagawa onto one teamsheet has actually resulted in a solution to this!

    I felt at times that when we played against high-tempo pressing teams last season Scholes and Carrick battled because they were both deep-lying and too parallel in the 4-4-1-1 without a man close enough up ahead. To beat a pressing team you’ve got to be quickfooted and have a man moving into the space where the pressing player(s) have run from, as well as someone sitting deep enough to link well with the centrebacks. I’d like to think that that playing Cleverley and Kagawa on the left and right of the diamond with their touches, runs and passing combined with Rooney’s energy at the top of the diamond and Carrick’s anticipation and passing skills from deeper will work, and I think this fluidity and energy will be ideal against a pressing team.

    In a few matches this season there’s been a pattern to the way the opposition have played. Because we’ve conceded early in most of the games, it’s allowed them to then sit back in two banks of four and defend. United battled to unlock that defense through traditional wing-play, either because of poor crossing or because the wingers were heavily marked; trying to get down the touchline past both a winger and a fullback. In contrast, the diamond shape naturally narrows the opposition’s defense and so diagonal balls and crosses from Patrice and Raphael could be very effective.

  14. Coolidge_ @ 9:50: “Because we’ve conceded early in most of the games, it’s allowed them to then sit back in two banks of four and defend. United battled to unlock that defense through traditional wing-play, either because of poor crossing or because the wingers were heavily marked; trying to get down the touchline past both a winger and a fullback”

    It seems to me that “traditional wing-play” is always going to be less effective against an opponent which sits back in “two banks of four” (or nine men behind the ball ?) than in a more-open game in which width and fast strikers have space to run into. When the opposition parks-the-bus there just isn’t the room for get-it-out-wide and cross-it-onto-the-noggin-of-an-onrushing-striker. Parking-the-bus negates the diagonal passing that is at the heart of “traditional wing-play” so it only stands to reason that another tactic/strategy is required in those circumstances.

    What was notable about Sunday’s match was that Newcastle played a 4-4-2 and were torn to bits but when they reverted to some version of a 4-5-1 UTD’s complete mastery was more muted. Thus, Pardew must have decided that it would be better to lose 0-2/3 than 1-6.

  15. I think that to be fair to Pardew he was trying to get back into the game rather than just keeping the score down and as a consequences of the changes he made to Newcastle’s shape Sir Alex changed United’s shape. It would be wrong to characterise this game as one where United imposed their will on Newcastle from start to finish. Newcastle had already seen United’s approach of course have played us in the League Cup when we used much the same formation.

    It was a bit of a chess game on Sunday. Sir Alex won it but there was a point where it could have gone significantly wrong if he hadn’t have made adjustment. The introduction of Valencia was key for me. He made Newcastle take a step back and took the pressure off Rafael at a point when Newcastle were getting too many dangerous crosses in. In that sense you could make a case that wing play saved us, ironically.

    This new tactic is great in that it gives Sir Alex another option, and as we all know he loves options. I think Doron has called it the ‘Fergie Tombola’.

  16. “The introduction of Valencia was key for me.”

    Me, too – it was a statement of intent that UTD wouldn’t be pushed around in the same way that KagawaBunga had been after being shocked by that absurd yellow card. ShinjiSan really went off-the-boil because the yellow card seemed to both shock and frighten him. When AV7 came on, it was like having a rod for Newcastle’s backs.

  17. Kagawa went too deep in my view. I like him, and think he’s a great prospect but definately a work in progress on a number of levels. Think he needs time to get to know teamates and what is expected of him tactically.

    Think the future look bright this season because we now seem to have viable options both in terms of personnel and tactics. Last year we didn’t have an option for certain situations, for example Liverpool away in cup, and the incredibly poor performance at the commonwealth stadium. I’m not interested in the hangover from the 1-6. That performance was a surrender, and against the team widely regard as the weakest team ever to win the premiership. We’d give them a much sterner test now.

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