Newcastle United defeated Manchester United 1-0 at St. James’ Park to massively boost their survival chances. Matt Ritchie’s goal in the second half was enough to give the Magpies all three points, while United suffered their second straight away loss. Jose Mourinho has now failed to record a win at St. James’ Park in the Premier League after seven games.
Here are some of the major talking points from Sunday’s game:
Chris Smalling’s time should be up
United have been hamstrung by Eric Bailly’s unavailability for the majority of this campaign. The Ivory Coast defender is the best at the club, but has only managed eight appearances in the league this season, meaning that Phil Jones has been mainly partnered by Chris Smalling at the back. While Smalling has previously shown remarkable resilience in bouncing back from poor performances to post runs of good form, those poor performances are too frequent, and Sunday was yet another case in point. He failed to win a single tackle during the game, a damning statistic for any centre-back, and the free kick from which Newcastle scored their goal was conceded by him. More damning was the manner in which this was done; having stepped up into midfield, Smalling was penalised and cautioned for diving, as Jonjo Shelvey made no contact with the United defender. He should have arguably given away a penalty in the first half as well for tripping Ayoze Perez, but benefited from the referee’s generosity. Additionally, his inability to pass out from the back hinders United’s attacking play, as opposition managers usually put a targeted press on United’s backline in order to force the ball to Smalling, who more often than not gives it away. Victor Lindelof and Marcos Rojo must be wondering what they need to do to get into the lineup ahead of Smalling, and on this evidence, he must swiftly be removed, both from the lineup and the club, in the summer.
Pogba and Matic fail again
Paul Pogba was quite publicly rebuked by Jose Mourinho for his performance in the Tottenham game, first by being substituted quite early, and then being left out of the starting XI against Huddersfield. One would have thought that this would spark the Frenchman into improving his performance upon returning to the side, but this was not to be. It did seem as if he was not at full fitness; he did not complete the warm-up and was again withdrawn early, immediately after Newcastle’s goal. Nevertheless, during his time on the pitch, Pogba failed to impose himself against Jonjo Shelvey and Mohamed Diame, regularly failing to win duels against the Newcastle duo. He was not helped in this regard by his partner in midfield, Nemanja Matic, whose performance levels have been on a steady decline over the last couple of months. He was guilty of regularly giving the ball away, while Newcastle managed to make headway centrally on a number of occasions without any interference from the Serbian. There are caveats here as well; Matic has seldom been rested, not helped by injuries and suspensions for his fellow midfielders, and this heavy workload could be taking a toll on his performance. However, with the Champions League coming up, United need their central midfielders to step up their game, otherwise this season could unravel rapidly.
Benitez performing alchemy at St. James’
Newcastle United, with all due respect to their history, are not the level of club Rafa Benitez should be managing. That he is doing so, owes more to his recent failings at the likes of Real Madrid and Inter Milan, than anything that Newcastle have managed to do. The squad is of Championship-level, with barely any quality added since they were promoted in the summer, but Benitez is managing to keep them afloat. This win took the Geordies up to 13th place, albeit still only two points above the relegation zone, in what is an extremely crowded lower half of the table. This might play into Newcastle’s favour, as a few wins should be enough to secure their Premier League status for this season. That is vital for the club, as Premier League survival and the associated riches are the only hope Mike Ashley has of being able to find a buyer for his club. Benitez looks like overachieving with this squad, thereby enhancing his reputation on Tyneside as well as the wider footballing world; however, there looks to be a clash looming between manager and owner in the summer owing to the lack of investment in the squad, and Newcastle fans will hope that Benitez is convinced to stay on as manager, as he represents their only hope for any progress on the pitch.