Manchester United claimed an important 3-0 victory over Newcastle United at the Sports Direct Arena to stay in touch with leaders Chelsea, now 4 points ahead of the Reds, 7 games into the season.
United persisted with the same formation used by Sir Alex against Cluj midweek, which has been variously described as a 4-4-2 diamond, or a 4-3-3 with both centres of the 3 sitting deep. Ferguson brought Carrick back in to anchor the base of midfield, sending Kagawa right and Cleverley left in front of him. Rooney sat at the top of the diamond, in behind van Persie and Welbeck up front. Happily David De Gea also kept his place in what can only be seen as a vote of confidence from Sir Alex who has tended to shield his young keeper from games against teams with a propensity for crossing the ball to big physical strikers. Whilst not faultless in command of his area against ariel threats, these are exactly the type of games De Gea should be getting to allow him to learn and improve.
United stormed out of the blocks, their formation a shock to Newcastle, who were clearly expecting a flat 4, and therefore had trouble picking up both Carrick and Rooney playing between the lines as Tiote and Cabaye pressed Kagawa and Cleverley. Both Carrick and Rooney became the outlet for Kagawa/Cleverley whenever Newcastle pressed therefore allowing United to keep possession better than they have managed in recent games (second half v Spurs aside). The downside of this formation is its lack of width, however both Rafael and Evra compensated for this perfectly with lung-busting runs down the wing, during which Kagawa and Cleverley fell back to guard against the counter attack.
In truth, if Danny Welbeck had had his shooting boots with him, Manchester United could have been 2-0 up after 10 minutes. Firstly he scuffed a good chance inside the box and then, doing what he does best, he harried Steve Harper into a mistake when he tackled him on the edge of the box and had an empty net, or van Persie in the middle to square for an easy goal. While no one can dispute that Welbeck’s a fantastic prospect, he’s still to find that level of composure when presented with goal scoring opportunities that marks out top level strikers. With time on his side though, similar to De Gea, he will learn from being in the situation, and should be pleased with his work rate.
When United did find the net, it came from an inch perfect corner from Robin van Persie right on to the head of Jonny Evans who made the kind of weaving run that’s a nightmare to defend and out-jumped Demba Ba to power a header past Harper. Though via an unexpected method, the goal was well deserved.
If one goal from a corner was unexpected, when the second followed in almost identikit fashion, the away fans, high up in the gods as usual, went mad. Another fantastic run, this time from Evra, was rewarded by an equally good ball in from Rooney, allowing Evra to out-jump Demba Ba once again, to double United’s advantage. Whilst we celebrated in the stands, the reaction of some Newcastle fans beneath us was distasteful to say the least. While not all together unexpected given the reaction it deservedly provokes in the travelling support, three Magpies turned around to look up at us and began making aeroplane and crashing gestures – gestures that were clearly observed by NUFC’s stewards who did nothing but ask their fans to turn back around to face the game. Another week, more inappropriate behaviour, still no one cares. I understand the difficulty of policing an entire stand of offenders, but when there were three clear problem fans that were instigating and persisting with this behaviour, they should have been removed from the ground immediately.
Back on the field Pardew, realising what was happening to his team in midfield, changed formation to 4-5-1 pushing Cisse out on right instead of up front with Ba. The change made Newcastle more combative in midfield as they now had the numbers in there to press Carrick and Rooney as well as Kagawa and Cleverley. This turned the game on its head making the Geordies a far more potent force for the rest of the first half and the early part of the second half. By removing the easy pass for United’s midfield when in possession, Newcastle forced United into giving the ball away further up the pitch, leading to some long range efforts from Cabaye and Ben Afra.
When this pattern continued into the second half, Sir Alex brought Valencia on for Kagawa and immediately restored some of the attacking width that had been missing from United’s last 20 minutes. Kagawa, whilst bright once again, is not a winger and is clearly being played out of position. I’m sure he would have felt much more comfortable in Rooney’s role yesterday, but then with a wealth of attacking talent to accommodate, it’s a fact of life that not everyone will get to play where they want to each week.
Newcastle continued to probe the solid United defence and thought they should have had a goal when Cisse headed at De Gea from almost point blank range, only for the supreme shot-stopper to palm the ball onto the post and back across the empty net. At 2-0 down they had to push forward to have any chance of getting back into the game, which left space in behind their midfield which Rooney and Cleverley exploited as the young Englishman fired in a cross/shot towards van Persie which looped perfectly over the stranded Harper and into the far top corner. Cleverley claimed it was an intentional shot after the game (as you would) but replays clearly show him looking at van Persie, before crossing the ball.
At 3-0 with 20 minutes to go, the Geordie crowd offered up antics of a more comical nature this time by giving us the finger and beginning to leave in droves. Away up next to our support, several thousand of them also bizarrely started doing ‘The Poznan’ which, far from winding us up at all (oh no! You’re not doing the celebration city stole from Lech Poznań, how insulting to us, an unrelated club!!) only prompted a chorus of ‘who the f*** do you support?’
The remaining minutes were unremarkable except for the introduction of Scholes and his customary yellow card, and a short but poor cameo from Giggs who managed to give the ball away a few times in his few minutes on the pitch. The time must come to question his inclusion when he was noticeably off the pace against Spurs, and unable to get into the game off the bench either against Newcastle.
Overall this was a much better performance than I was expecting. I stood looking down as we were pummelled 3-0 there last year, and after the total lack of tactical nouse shown against Spurs last weekend, was prepared to witness the same again, however the 4-3-3 or diamond, whichever you prefer, was the perfect foil for both Newcastle’s strengths and our perceived weaknesses. You could say this was a momentum changing performance… If only it we weren’t now headed into an international break.