Newcastle expose imbalances to defeat Manchester United
There’s a moment in every superhero story where the protagonist momentarily loses his power. In the 1986 relaunch of DC Comic’s Superman series, John Byrne revised the superhero’s abilities so that it would be easier to for writers to come up with suitable challenges. Last night, Newcastle United was such a challenge for Manchester United’s Phil Jones. Because, up to now, the Premier League season had been too easy for him. Whatever position and scenario he had been thrown into, Jones had reacted with aplomb. But finally, he met his match, as the powerful duo of Demba Ba and particularly, Shola Ameobi, proved an overwhelming nemesis and has shown that, after all the endless praise he has received, some dose of realism is needed to be had.
The other more pressing issue is of Phil Jones’ position. At the Sports Direct Arena, he played at centre-back – much believed to be his eventual and best role – but he suffered against the directness of Newcastle’s play and the physicality of the two forwards. This can be rather harshly analysed further as he was involved – and perhaps even, at fault – for all three of Newcastle goals, firstly being beaten in the air by Ameobi; then conceding the free-kick that Yohan Cabaye converted and lastly, having the misfortune of scoring an own goal. Phil Jones will be a fine player but he’s also had to carry a lot of responsibility in his début season for Manchester United and that’s a lot to ask of a young player. However, that’s also testament to Jones’s great ability as he has become almost essential to the side. Perhaps not yet at centre-back where he looks a bit lost between attacking the ball and not – something Rio Ferdinand has mastered – but more likely in central midfield where his drive is essential in a team which is still finding its identity. Again, Jones has had to step up following the injuries to Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher like his has had to filling in at right-back.
If Jones suffered, Manchester United also suffered and they looked a shadow of what they were, not only in the first few months of the season but lacking the traits of all Sir Alex Ferguson teams in the past. Once they went behind, and that task was made even harder once Cabaye has scored straight after half-time, they reacted so meekly. They had one real chance; Wayne Rooney’s shot cleared off the line – when have they last reacted so insipidly under Sir Alex? Then was the performance of United’s attackers, most prominently that of Rooney’s. The England striker was substituted off in the second-half, improbably, when United were chasing the game. Again, when has that happened under Sir Alex Ferguson? although sometimes, sacrilegious substitutions have to be made.
Rooney was substituted because influence was becoming an hindrance, retarding attacking moves due to poor execution of the final ball and at times, getting in his own team-mates way. That’s because his positioning is often Manchester United’s best and he knows it, the Gaffer knows it but history has similarly seen overly-influential players become sacrificed for the team’s cause. Rafael Benitez did it in April 2010 in a heated Merseyside derby by replacing Steven Gerrard for Lucas to calm the game down while Argentina imploded in World Cup 2006 after taking off Juan Roman Riquelme but because they were so reliant on him, they couldn’t mount a comeback. It was probably the wrong choice to take off Rooney but Sir Alex could see the striker’s desperation and thought that he may compose himself if he was shunted to the left. Alas, it was to no avail and he was eventually replaced by Javier Hernandez.
Manchester United’s wing-play was uncharacteristically poor, as it was in the defeat to Blackburn Rovers 2-3 previously. In fact, there were imbalances throughout the team team. Newcastle pressed and United’s passing from the back was panicky. The gap between central midfield and defence was too large although that can be put down to Newcastle’s two strikers playing very high in United’s half and the fact that quickly, they had to chase the game. At the end of the match, Newcastle United manager, Alan Pardew, seemed more taken aback by, not the result, but how easy his team prevailed. Indeed, you might have forgiven him if he boastfully exclaimed in his post-match interview, such was the dominance of Cheik Tioté, that “the formula for beating Manchester United is not so complicate: leave the ball for them in the centre of their midfield and wait for someone to do something. It’s like waiting for Godot: nothing will happen.” In actual fact he said: “We won because we controlled the game. They had a lot of balance in their team but we didn’t let them play and we deserved to beat the champions,” said Pardew. “We took a big gamble with our high line but by pressing them we broke up their play so many times. We took a physical risk in that at the back we were sometimes two versus two, but we could cope with it. We got a great victory because we sat on them all night and were aggressive.”
The worrying thing for United fans, it’s happened before, in the 1-2 defeat to Basle and it doesn’t often happen like this. Not under Ferguson. The performance was atypically Manchester United and they know they will have to show some of that “spirit” they’ve shown in the past if they are to keep abreast of Manchester City in the title race.