United returned from the international break with an emphatic win over a weak Newcastle side. Goals from Martial, Smalling, Pogba and Lukaku ensured that the Reds kept pace with City. Zlatan made his return to the eleven, but the big story was the class of the returning Pogba, looking a cut above the other twenty-two players on the field.
The Reds returned to the 4-2-3-1 shape that they played for most of the start of the season. De Gea kept his place in goal. The back four was Valencia, Lindelof, Smalling and Young, Mourinho had stated that Jones and Bailly weren’t fit enough to play. Pogba returned to the midfield alongside Matic. Rashford and Martial flanked Mata in the three behind Lukaku. Newcastle lined up in a 4-4-2, playing Gayle and Joselu up front.
United started the game very poorly, completely unable to keep the ball and being consistently hustled and harried by a hardworking Newcastle side. The upbeat mood brought by seeing Pogba playing again was punctured by Newcastle opening the scoring. Yedlin was released down the right-hand side, seemingly coming from nowhere. Smalling was pulled wide to try to stop him but failed. The American right-back pulled the ball back to the edge of the box, where Dwight Gayle ran onto it and put it away, off of the left-hand post. Lindelof had slipped in the build-up, but Matic and Pogba had failed to track back with any of the Magpies on the edge of the box.
The game quickly became attack versus defence. Newcastle sat with two banks of four in their own half, allowing United to keep the ball and encouraging them to attempt to break through. The Reds had a lot of possession in the first half hour but struggled to create any meaningful chances. In fact, Newcastle went close themselves, Shelvey sliding Murphy through on the right, only for the youngster to pull it wide.
After thirty-six minutes, Pogba decided to change the game. Standing Hayden up on the right side of Newcastle’s penalty area, the Frenchman pulled the ball back then forward, somehow in one movement. He roasted Hayden like a chicken, before clipping a ball to the back post, where his countryman Martial rose above Yedlin and headed home.
Newcastle were now under increasing pressure. United were pinning them back and biding their time, probing for spaces. Joselu was forced to head over his own bar after a good cross from Young before Lukaku arguably should have had a penalty. Another cross into the box fell to the Belgian, but Clark was pulling his shirt almost over his head. The referee gave nothing.
Just before half time, United pulled ahead. Young received the ball thirty-five yards out on the left-hand side. He motioned to cross with his right but hooked the ball past his challenger, gaining a crucial yard. The full-back delivered a wonderful cross to the back post, where Smalling had stayed forward to nod down and under the keeper. Another wonderful assist from Young, who is having quite the late career renaissance.
Newcastle almost equalised immediately in first-half injury time. Ritchie played in Hayden behind the United defence. Hayden got past Smalling too easily but hit a tame shot straight at De Gea. The ball was cleared to the edge of the area, where Ritchie hammered another attempt at goal. Gayle was alone on the edge of the six-yard box and stuck out a leg, but actually managed to clear the ball. It was a heart in mouth moment.
After half time, Jose made a tactical tweak, moving Mata out onto the right flank and pushing Rashford inside. The shape was still a 4-2-3-1 but often ended up as a loose 4-4-2, with Rashford competing with the middle two in Newcastle’s backline. This gave United’s midfielders more runners and allowed Lukaku to peel wider, stretching the Newcastle back four. In fact, United’s two goals in the second half came from the Belgian cutting in off the flank.
Pogba calmed everything down ten minutes after half time with a brilliant counter-attacking goal. Young made an interception on the edge of the area and sprayed it out to Juan Mata on the right. The Spaniard played the ball down the flank, where Lukaku carried the ball towards goal. Rashford had hurtled into the box and the Belgian found the youngster with a lofted ball at the back post. Where it looked like he should nod at goal, Rashford headed back across the box, where Pogba could poke it home, the cherry on top of his wonderful return.
Pogba was brought off for Fellaini after 70 mins, his job done. He was magnificent and showed just how much United have missed him in the last few weeks. His range of passing is far beyond every other player in the squad. But most importantly, he has the creativity to make something out of nothing, a trait United have lacked in his absence. Pogba’s tricks are akin to a kid on a playground, playing purely for fun. He seems to enjoy beating players, with a shimmy, a flick of the ankle or simply by manoeuvring his body. We should feel privileged to be able to see him play.
United finished their scoring soon after Pogba came off, so soon in fact, that he was able to be involved in the celebrations. Lukaku, who was getting a lot of joy down the right flank, brought it inside from that touchline. He got to the edge of the area then touched it off to Mata, who flicked it through the air back to him. Lukaku chested it down and past the challenging defender, dummied to shoot, then rifled it into the roof of the net. Mourinho punched the air and the Belgian stood tall with his arms wide. It was a relief to see him score for The Reds again.
On seventy-seven minutes, the moment Twitter and LadBible had been waiting for finally arrived, as Zlatan came on for Martial. He gave a decent account of himself, looking to create chances and almost scored himself, going close with an overhead kick in the dying moments. He played in a number nine role, pushing Lukaku out wide.
During the week, Mourinho mentioned the possibility of playing a 3-5-2 with Lukaku and Zlatan as the front two. While this looks good on paper, it would mean dropping both Martial and Rashford. Zlatan is undoubtedly a quality player, but he’s a 36-year-old who’s just recovered from a major injury. Although they haven’t been consistent this season, Rashford and Martial offer pace a trickery, something the rest of the side lack. What would serve United better this season, youthful exuberance or elderly wisdom? We shall see.
Despite an early wobble, United returned to the Premier League in a similar vein to how they started it, swatting aside a lower level team with ease. Pogba was absolutely brilliant, Lukaku scored again and the squad now has a pleasing amount of depth. United have Basel in the midweek then return to Old Trafford to face Brighton. On this form, they’ll stroll to a victory in both games, but will this return to form be enough to catch City?