Few would have foreseen an extraordinarily open six-goal thriller at St. James’ Park on Tuesday evening. Even fewer would have foreseen such a wholesale change in tactical emphasis from Manchester United’s Louis Van Gaal.
Out went the status quo of plodding possession fetishisation that was so painfully on display against Sheffield United on Saturday. In its stead arrived a direct, counter-attacking approach that finally extracted something close to captain Wayne Rooney’s best.
It would be easy to mistakenly attribute Manchester United’s more reactive approach here to their 9th minute opener. However, Newcastle – who finished the game with 54% of the possession pie – had enjoyed roughly 70% of the football prior to Rooney’s penalty. Van Gaal’s maddening obsession with control had been relaxed for at least one evening. And his side’s attacking play looked all the better for it.
Both of the visitors’ big first-half chances stemmed from fast breaks. The first saw Rooney slide a left-footed effort wide after being played in down the inside-left by Jesse Lingard. The second was instigated by Herrera after a loose Sissoko pass in the United half; Lingard finished through Rob Elliott’s legs after a wonderful reverse pass from his captain.
Unfortunately for Manchester United, their bosses’ willingness to allow his charges to relax their usual monopoly on the football also had its drawbacks. Deprioritising possession retention meant allowing the opposition to use the football more often. Defensive frailty that hadn’t raised its head in some time was gleefully exposed; specifically, the Red Devils’ longstanding vulnerability to physically superior opposition strikers.
The Newcastle number nine that took advantage of this was Aleksandar Mitrovic. The Serbian predominantly played up against left-sided centre-back, Daley Blind, in the first-half in a bid to leverage his physical attributes to his side’s benefit. Targeting Blind in this manner had been a productive strategy for a number of sides in the early weeks of this season and it was just as fruitful for the Toon here. Wijnaldum’s clear-cut chance at 0-1 resulted from Mitrovic holding off Blind to provide a pivot for the Newcastle attack, as did Janmaat’s penalty shout after the coming-together with Lingard.
Most importantly, it was Mitrovic’s presence in this zone that gave Steve McClaren’s side a way back into the game late in the first half. Mindful of how the number nine was dominating the slight Blind, Marouane Fellaini dropped back to challenge him for Fabricio Coloccini’s long punt. Mitrovic beat both of his markers to head down for Wijnaldum to finish.
The pattern established in the first half continued in the second. United remained a serious threat on the counter-attack, while their backline consistently failed to handle Mitrovic. Now Chris Smalling took his turn to be bullied by the opposition frontman. The home side’s penalty-spot equaliser stemmed from Smalling’s comical attempts to “mark” Mitrovic at a corner-kick. Mitrovic also played a large part in his side’s second equaliser in the dying moments of the game, backing into Smalling to prevent him getting adequate purchase on his clearing header. Paul Dummett’s subsequent strike from range deflected in off Smalling, adding insult to his injury.
That fortunate strike canceled out Wayne Rooney’s marvelous drive from outside the area. This goal also had a touch of fortune attached to it, stemming as it did from a blocked Memphis Depay effort. Depay’s late introduction added even more directness to United’s play – as indeed it had in that abysmal FA Cup tie at the weekend.
The Dutch winger’s impact on the United counter-attack showed itself again five minutes later when he broke in behind Janmaat to beat Mbemba down the outside and stand one up for Fellaini. The Belgian should have scored to make it 2-4. As should Lingard when he wasted a chance that Anthony Martial’s dribbling fashioned at 1-2. Both moments elicited rare demonstrations of emotion from Louis Van Gaal. It was as if he knew that both misses would prove costly, especially given the marked fragility of his defensive unit. He was right.