Newcastle United (4-2-3-1): Dubravka; Yedlin, Lascelles, Lejuene, Dummett; Shelvey, Diame; Ritchie, Perez, Kenedy; Gayle
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Jones, Young; Matic Pogba; Martial, Lingard, Sanchez; Lukaku
Rafa Benitez handed a debut to on-loan goalkeeper Martin Dubravka, while Florian Lejeune returned to the lineup for the first time since November following an injury.
Jose Mourinho named the same team that lost to Tottenham away, meaning that Paul Pogba was restored to the lineup. Phil Jones also returned, along with Anthony Martial and Ashley Young.
Major tactical themes:
Newcastle press disrupts United
Rafa Benitez is not a known exponent of a high-pressing system; his teams are usually set up to sit deep and soak up pressure, rather than proactively go hunting for the ball. Here, he opted for a sort of hybrid between the two: Newcastle were certainly sitting deep and allowing United to come onto them; however, there was a targeted press that served to disrupt United’s passing rhythm throughout the game. Newcastle were specifically pressing Chris Smalling whenever he had the ball, in the knowledge that he was not accomplished enough in possession to be able to pick out a teammate when under pressure. Secondly, the Magpies were pressing United in the midfield zone, especially when Nemanja Matic received the ball on the turn, to force him to play it back to his centre-backs, or better yet, dispossess him and create an immediate counter-attacking opportunity. United struggled to impose themselves on the ball throughout the game, and Newcastle’s targeted press takes a lot of credit for that. This is borne out by the fact that of the top six players with the most touches of the ball during the game, four were the United back four.
Shelvey allowed to dictate play
Shelvey took the highest number of touches of any Newcastle player; he was one of the aforementioned top six, and indeed he was on the ball more than either Nemanja Matic or Paul Pogba, his opponents in midfield. While Newcastle were pressing United’s defence and not allowing the ball to be easily moved into midfield, Shelvey had all the time in the world to pick up the ball and dictate proceedings. He was usually dropping deep to collect the ball before passing it out wide or into the channels for his forwards to chase; however, he did push up to United’s box on occasion as well. Neither Jesse Lingard nor any of United’s midfield duo picked him up throughout the game, and while a pass accuracy of 68% is not particularly impressive, it must be remembered that the recipients of Shelvey’s passes were usually his isolated forwards, with the result usually being intercepted or overhit passes. Nevertheless, he managed more passes and touches than either Pogba or Matic, which underlines his dominance over midfield.
Pogba continues to frustrate
Paul Pogba’s horrendous performance against Tottenham had prompted Mourinho to substitute him early in that game, as well as drop him from the next one against Huddersfield. He returned to the lineup for this game, and proceeded to have yet another anonymous showing, again leading to an early substitution immediately after Newcastle’s goal. The root of Pogba’s struggles lies in Mourinho’s refusal to play a three-man midfield; Pogba is clearly unsuited to playing as part of a two. He is far too attacking, which places too much of a burden on his partner, usually Nemanja Matic. Further, it also breaks the structure of United’s midfield, as Pogba is too often caught in advance of the ball, inevitably meaning that United are short-staffed when defending opposition counter-attacks. All of these were borne out at St. James’; however, Pogba is not absolved of blame either. His reluctance to discipline himself for the overall structure of the team is inhibiting United, while he does not possess the requisite nous to play as a #10. Mourinho must solve this conundrum, and fast, if United are to have any hope of success this season.
Sanchez and Lukaku dovetail well
The one crumb of comfort for United fans from this defeat was Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez’s interplay. While this partnership is still in its infancy, there were enough promising signs in this game to suggest that they could form a potent duo, given more time. Lukaku had a good game, despite not scoring; his link-up play is unrecognizable from his time at Everton, and he combined extremely well with his fellow attackers.
Sanchez was his usual busy self, while his movement was consistently causing Newcastle problems. One excellent run inside from the left-flank to the right-hand side of the penalty area almost resulted in a chance; Martial’s pass was overhit, while Lukaku set him up for the game’s best chance, when he rounded the keeper but could only find the covering defender with his shot, instead of the open net.
Sanchez’s moves infield opened up space for Lukaku or Lingard to move wide; however, this option was not frequently used, leading to a congested central space, with Anthony Martial also coming inside from the right. The Chilean’s arrival has caused this issue, as Martial or Rashford are forced to play on the right, where neither is entirely comfortable. Hence the conclusion that their attacking combinations need time and work on the training field, but if used correctly, these two players could form a devastating partnership.
United were poor in this defeat, with a lack of creativity on the ball and subtlety off it. Chris Smalling’s poor defensive performance, allied with a lack of ball-playing ability, mean that United almost certainly need an upgrade in that position, while Paul Pogba is wasted in a midfield two. Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku have the beginnings of a promising partnership; however, Jose Mourinho needs to solve his midfield problem as soon as possible if they are to prosper.