Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s relatively gentle introduction to life at Old Trafford continued with a trip to Newcastle for his fourth game in charge. The Magpies had won only one of their last seven games leading up to this encounter at St. James’ Park. Nevertheless, former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez is renowned for his ability to organize sides defensively, and United would not find it easy to get past them.
This would prove to be Solskjaer’s toughest game yet as United manager, but he managed to notch a fourth win in a row by using his bench expertly. The Norwegian is now only the second Manchester United manager to win his first four games, after Sir Matt Busby. This analysis will have a look at how Newcastle frustrated the Red Devils, with Manchester United coming out on top due to their strength in depth.
Benitez once again opted for a back three, drafting Paul Dummett in as the third centre-back and playing Matt Ritchie at left wing-back. Isaac Hayden got a rare start in midfield, with Salomon Rondon leading the line.
Manchester United welcomed Antonio Valencia back after a spell on the sidelines, while Juan Mata started in front of him. Jesse Lingard was on the bench, alongside Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku. Marcus Rashford started up front yet again.
United’s vulnerable right
Antonio Valencia was reinstated as captain and right-back for this game, taking both honours from Ashley Young, who had done a good job in recent weeks. The contrast between the Ecuadorian and the Englishman was stark at St. James’ Park, as Valencia struggled positionally.
Time seems to have caught up with the 33-year old, as he was frequently caught up the pitch when Newcastle counter-attacked. Christian Atsu, his nominal direct opponent, troubled him to quite an extent, and the United man was beaten for pace on more than one occasion.
Juan Mata’s inclusion in the side did not help in this regard. The Spaniard tends to drift infield and in any case does not possess the pace or physique to be a defensive asset. This meant that Matt Ritchie and Atsu often revelled down United’s right-hand side, and it took a good performance from Victor Lindelof to keep United’s sheet clean. The Swede came across intelligently to cover for Valencia repeatedly, and while United did not concede in this game, Valencia looks like a defensive liability waiting to happen.
Newcastle’s organisation frustrates United
Rafa Benitez’s tactical acumen is second to none, especially when it comes to organizing sides defensively. It is one of the few reasons why Newcastle fans are optimistic of surviving in the Premier League despite their lack of attacking firepower as well as everything else that is going on around the club.
The Spaniard had sent his side out to frustrate their more illustrious visitors, and it showed; United struggled to play with the kind of fluency they had displayed in their wins over Cardiff, Huddersfield and Bournemouth. Newcastle were disciplined and structured, denying United space in central areas and continuously forcing them to go out wide.
United’s set-up was a slight hindrance as well. Against Newcastle’s back three, the best way to stretch the side would have been to instruct the wingers to stay wide and hug the touchline, forcing the wing-backs to drop deep and opening up space in midfield.
However, while Anthony Martial did so on the left, Juan Mata is not a conventional winger. He played in central areas, looking to combine with Paul Pogba and Rashford. While that in itself is not a problem, it played into Newcastle’s hands. Perhaps Jesse Lingard should have played on the right, or Alexis Sanchez could have been asked to operate on that side. Martial and Mata’s touch maps will illustrate this point.
Another impressive facet of Newcastle’s system was how rarely they allowed United to get in behind them. Benitez would have watched how Marcus Rashford got in behind Huddersfield and Bournemouth repeatedly at Old Trafford, and it looked like he had drilled his side to prevent that happening. Rashford usually ended up receiving the ball with his back to goal and a defender on his heels, without being given space to turn and run.
He did drift to the right to try and get in between Dummett and Lascelles, but even this was to no avail. As his touch map shows, he had very few touches in the Newcastle box, or indeed anywhere close outside it, and ended up taking quite a few shots from range. He did manage to score United’s second late on to seal the game, after a quick United counter-attack, but overall Newcastle had managed to blunt him quite effectively.
United struggled to break down a disciplined Newcastle side, and on another day would have probably had to share the spoils. However, the strength of Solskjaer’s bench proved decisive, with Lukaku and Sanchez managing to take the game away from the Magpies. This displayed yet another facet of Solskjaer’s management, to go with his man-management and tactical skills – the ability to make game-changing substitutions.
While this is not all down to the Norwegian, fortune favours the brave. On this occasion, Solskjaer benefited from being bold with his changes. A fourth consecutive league win has brightened the mood around Old Trafford considerably, and the FA Cup tie against Reading should bring further cheer before the much-anticipated game against Tottenham next weekend.
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