The answer will come soon enough as United’s upcoming game plan should put an end to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as Old Trafford manager. But the beleaguered boss will stick to the numerous positive results of a dominant performance.
Yes, this was Newcastle – a team that looked content to play a draw while taking the lead after a second-minute lead. Steve Bruce’s team suffers from a desperate lack of ambition, a disease that has spread from the boardroom to the field. But they kept United working until the 86th minute, which is considered a great comfort by too many at St. James’ Park.
Fortunately for Solskjaer, however, United had to show some charm to eventually bring Newcastle to a standstill.
Much of that attraction was found in Bruno Fernandes and Juan Mata’s class. Fernandes did what Fernandes did; He dragged an initially reluctant team onto the field and brought him some imagination and creativity. It is often a lonely job for Fernandes, but in Mata he seems to have found a kindred spirit.
Mata was one of several changes Solskjaer had to make just to get something done that wretched surrender to Spurs. Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, and Mason Greenwood dated the suspended Anthony Martial. None of those who were dropped could reasonably complain, but of those who replaced them, it was Mata who really took advantage of his opportunity.
The Spaniard is United’s Current Player of the Month, but this was his first Premier League appearance of the season. Mata received the glossiest sucker award on the back of his Carabao Cup accomplishments, and if he felt at home tonight, it might be because Solskjaer’s selection looked like a League Cup XI.
But everything good about United, especially in the first hour, was focused on Mata. He played on the left in the first half before switching to the other side. Regardless of which flank he occupied, Fernandes’ first look was always directed in that direction. Fernandes seems to trust Mata in a way that he cannot with many teammates. When he gives the ball to Mata, he trusts him to give it back.
With United’s usual three fronts, full of speed but often without deception, building up against unwanted opposition is so often arduous. But when Mata and Fernandes bounced the ball around the opponents, Newcastle were stretched quickly, especially while they were getting the pace of Marcus Rashford and Daniel James that they too had to worry about.
Mata teamed up with Fernandes for a beautiful goal that was ruled out by VAR before his shipment landed on Harry Maguire’s head. Nick equalized from United gave Maguire a smile for the first time in two months – not that he did – and reason to believe that his embarrassment in England on Wednesday may indeed have bottomed out.
It wasn’t all good news for United. Solskjaer has to go a little deeper among his seven candidates to partner with Maguire. Victor Lindelof was bullied by Callum Wilson in the lead up to Newcastle’s early opener, which was turned in by the unfortunate Luke Shaw. At least the left-back regained his composure and stayed steady for the remaining 88 minutes, but Alex Telles, watching from the bench, will no doubt expect to soon take his place in Solskjaer’s XI.
Even Fernandes endured the misfortune of missing his first sentence in 23 attempts. His usual jump was missing that second half, but Karl Darlow wasn’t fooled. The United Spot kick taker previously changed their approach but the Newcastle goalkeeper was the first to beat him.
But Fernandes got his revenge when he scored perhaps one of the best goals of Solskjaer’s reign. After United kept shooting at Darlow’s goal – the Red Devils had more shots tonight (29) than any other team in any other Premier League game this season – they ran from behind with Donny van de Beek, Fernandes, Mata and Rashford involved forward. A delicious move had achieved the goal it deserved when Fernandes made a back pass before finding the top corner with a shot that a goalkeeper with three arms would not have stopped, let alone one with one leg. Which is what Darlow was effective in the last 20 minutes …
Bruce’s reluctance to replace the hobble stopper was bizarre, but his inaction summed up Newcastle. If there is one side that cannot do without a healthy goalkeeper, it is certainly the magpies.
Darlow was beaten twice more and Aaron Wan-Bissaka helped himself build Newcastle’s confidence before Rashford added an extra layer of sheen to the goal line that adequately reflected United’s dominance.
Next up: PSG gone. And after that, it doesn’t get any easier to come up with Chelsea, RB Leipzig, Arsenal, Istanbul Basaksehir and Everton in the next three weeks.
Solskjaer is likely to restore Rashford on Tuesday with Martial and Edinson Cavani both available to lead the line. Pace at break may be the issue in Paris, but Mata has shown United have another way to fill the void on the right.
Read: 16 Conclusions To A Merseyside Derby Classic
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