Manchester United drew at St. James’ Park with a dreadful display – Edinson Cavani gave Ralf Rangnick’s men a point they scarcely deserved, as rumours intensify about his imminent departure.
Cavani had the best chance to win the game for the visitors – but it would not have been a victory deserved in the slightest, and one must feel that Rangnick would have been furious by what he witnessed.
The tone was set early on. In the second minute, Maguire was sloppy in possession and very fortunate indeed not to be punished – five minutes later he and United were. The captain came short for a throw-in but didn’t commit – this left space for two Newcastle forwards to press on Varane. It didn’t cover the Frenchman in glory, and the hosts pressed up the pitch – Saint-Maximin cut in from the left (past Dalot, past Maguire) and sliced his effort inside the far post.
Four minutes after taking the lead, Joelinton curled an effort wide from the edge of the box – the first thirty minutes against Palace, which promised such a change in shape and attitude, seemed a long time ago.
Remember those days when we were promised recovery within six seconds and a chance created within eight after that? Something even more familiar is the lack of coherence in midfield and midway through the first half another familiar sight – Fred overcommitting and being nowhere near – was followed by Jonjo Shelvey striding forward and testing De Gea from long range.
Newcastle, with just one win all season, looked comfortable and commanding. The visitors, meanwhile, couldn’t muster an effort of note and screwed up any of the admittedly few chances they had of speedy counters either through too many players staying deep or the wrong pass being played.
It is impossible to shake the feeling that you’re watching the product of 2 years of a manager instructing players to remove instinct, two and a half of a manager instructing players to always be pragmatic regardless of opponent, and three of a manager who was simply too inexperienced to coach the players out of that and into a mindset that he lived and breathed as a player.
The squad is now a mixture of all three sensibilities – and it needn’t feel like such a conundrum, because these are quality footballers, so we’re told, at the mercy of their coaching direction, so we’re told.
You have to wonder how much Rangnick is going on his own education versus media reputation – Wan-Bissaka was in abject form but we’ve seen Dalot, for his attacking improvement, is so lacking in all other areas of the game. Telles is what he was brought in to be – a full-back to challenge another to stay in top form (remember Jesper Blomqvist or Tony Coton). Rashford is internationally known but on performances hasn’t warranted his starting place for most of the year. McTominay and Fred have become such a staple that even now there is a player in Varane who ostensibly should have freed up a screening midfielder, others barely get a mention.
And then there’s the system, which felt like a stick at first – you thought that the players would have to make it work. How foolish we were, having witnessed five years of comfort zone football, where the first opportunity to not stand up and assume responsibility will be gladly taken. New system? Nah, not for us.
Sixteen days were granted to get some kind of rhythm (admittedly, not all of them as a complete group) and instead United looked all at sea, as if they’d been asked to explain the rules on nuclear physics, or how to negotiate a contract without an agent.
So you have a manager skilled in the art of implementing a style of play, one skilled in the art of instilling a winning mentality, one drenched in the history of the club – none were able to elevate United to where they needed to be, with one common denominator : whenever the opportunity was there for that manager to be presented as the biggest man at the club, he was usually undermined and soon after that sacked.
The problem when you make that decision – you’re back at square one as far as the authority of the manager is concerned. Nobody can say what has been gained in the last five years has been worth maybe persevering with the manager in post for at least one or two more transfer windows. And now United are left in the position where players know they can outlast an underperforming manager.
How can Rangnick solve such an endemic issue? Well, at half-time, he brought on Cavani and Sancho, moving Fernandes deeper alongside McTominay.
Within moments, Newcastle almost made it two, De Gea having to be alert after Saint-Maximin found space behind Varane — and then Rashford had United’s first chance on goal worth writing about, testing the Newcastle goalkeeper from distance.
The substitutes then combined – but Cavani’s effort was mis-kicked wide. You could at least put that down to ring-rust, which was more than could be said for Rashford’s abysmal effort at a left-footed cross a few minutes later.
With twenty minutes to go, Dalot finally came good – his cross from the right found Cavani, whose first effort was blocked. With the goalkeeper already committed, Cavani stabbed the rebound into the opposite side, and gave United parity.
Five minutes later, Cavani was surprised to receive a Telles cross, and fluffed his lines with the goal in front of him.
United’s defenders never looked better even as Newcastle lost Saint-Maximin to injury – Murphy hit the post in the 88th minute and from the follow-up, Almiron forced De Gea into a fine save.
It was more common to see a frustrated Ronaldo glance as he grew exasperated by the lack of quality around him, than it was to see a genuine threat on goal from the visitors. He was far from good himself – but he had a point.
As the game charged towards its conclusion it was easy to become distracted about the future of these clubs.
Twice United have lost here in recent years against dire Newcastle teams at differing points in seasons, with this not feeling much better than a loss, and yet all with vivid enough significance to let you know it wouldn’t be a Manchester United team challenging for a title seriously.
On this evidence, and considering what is awaiting for Newcastle in imminent transfer windows, their prospect of challenging for trophies probably looks more rosy than United’s.
United, meanwhile, are left in the depressingly familiar state of challenging for Champions League football and are now competing with the Spurs and Arsenals for the fourth spot before New Year. Embarrassing as the display tonight – which is apt.
With two weeks between games, we could have a clearer indication over Rangnick’s ideas – did he set up as he did in the first week as an emergency? Would some breathing space mean the system or personnel would change? Well, it was a 4-2-2-2 and the full-backs were Dalot and Telles with the familiar midfield. Sancho was out, and Rashford moved into the deeper position of one of the two ’10’s.
It would take an extreme optimist to say the system is working but the difficulty with a new manager is that you have to give him the chance to rule with an iron fist before he goes with horses for courses. Whisper it, but the flexibility in his first ten games as he gave different players chances in different team shapes was one of Solskjaer’s strengths.
This narrow system looked like it might be worth persisting with if players kept up the intensity but without it, it doesn’t suit the best or the worst players in the team. Who blinks first?
De Gea 8