If Manchester United ran a contest to predict their team against Newcastle none of the estimated 1.1 billion fans would have guessed it.
There were agreeable alterations (Paul Pogba dropped), disagreeable decisions (Donny van de Beek on the bench) and mind-boggling picks (Daniel James). As a United fan on Twitter – minus the expletives – put it,: “What’s the purpose of signing a player then not playing him after you have been smashed 6-1 in your last game?”
Van de Beek showed why he should be playing within the 86th minute, for it had been his slick alertness that sparked the breakaway that Bruno Fernandes crowned to salvage a potentially pivotal victory.
Pogba, dropped for the primary time by a manager who has precariously indulged his privileges, was the primary arrival off the bench but Van de Beek’s impacts are dwarfing his competitor’s. Van de Beek’s debut goal and instrument within the last-gap win at Brighton need to have convinced Solskjaer by now that Van de Beek’s role is on the pitch and not the bench.
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His absence was offset by another elegant performance from Juan Mata, who brought the United substitutes to their feet upon his removal in added time. Some hollered ‘mago’ in approval and turning to Mata was a call Solskjaer was never going to regret.
Most of the contentious calls were in defense, altered only by the removal of Eric Bailly for Victor Lindelof from the trouncing by Tottenham and the recalled Swede caused another leak. Lindelof was turned with alarming ease by Callum Wilson to spark the breakaway that ended with Luke Shaw’s clearance looping past a stranded David de Gea in the second minute.
United still had enough opportunities to add points and move into the top half of the table and eventually did so nervelessly. Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s first career goal and a Marcus Rashford strike added gloss in added time to address the goal difference – still in minus numbers.
They have navigated the calm before the storm during a pivotal period. United’s next three league fixtures are at home to Chelsea and Arsenal and away to leaders Everton, back in United’s slipstream, before the next international interruption in November.
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Their resolve in going 1-0 down so early was most impressively represented by Harry Maguire. Maguire started so forlornly he shouted ‘time’ when Scott McTominay had none and called ‘Harry’s only to balloon the ball towards his own area. Maguire, guilty of squandering a header at the Gallowgate in last year’s October loss, atoned with a classic connection from Mata’s corner to equalise.
Maguire was not cowed by his disaster classes for club and country and was again United’s most vocal presence in a stadium, urging teammates to ‘keep playing’. His leadership and leveller vindicated his manager’s faith and the United captain had a second-half header smuggled off the line. A defensive inquest is still essential with Kylian Mbappe and Neymar waiting in Paris on Tuesday.
De Gea’s favoured phrase in empty stadiums is ‘switch on’ and he got louder the closer Newcastle approached his goal. The usually placid Spaniard is becoming more animated behind a porous defence that cost just under €220.58million with Lindelof back in it, and De Gea was back to his old self with a magnificent denial of Wilson at 1-1. Appreciation for the save has doubled in light of the final score.
Eric Bailly was told to warm up early in the first-half and there is every chance it was prompted by a teammate’s form, rather than their fitness. Steve Bruce, once the prototype for artisan United centre-halves, urged Wilson to duel with Lindelof. The Newcastle striker was strangely tentative at times, much to his manager’s chagrin.
The United XI was again devoid of a single summer signing, with the treatment of Van de Beek in danger of spiralling into a sub-plot reminiscent of Ander Herrera and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s omissions of yesteryear before his game-changing cameo. Alex Telles inevitably started on the bench following his flight back from Sao Paulo but will have been encouraged by Shaw’s shoddy start.
Those usually stood on the Gallowgate would have quickened their step on the walk to St James’ Park and ‘#Oleout’ was trending online pre-match. Those in the press box, situated six floors up in the Milburn Stand and perched like vultures, did not get their kill.
The irony of a defender extinguishing Newcastle’s advantage was United were indebted to their forwards for their revival. Marcus Rashford, the lone frontman for the first time since Newcastle away last year, provided a commendable presence despite his entitled demands of referee Craig Pawson and Mata and Bruno Fernandes dovetailed elegantly.
Rashford’s shrieks alerted the Video Assistant Referee in the second-half and Pawson eventually determined Jamal Lewis had trod on the forward’s ankle inside the area. Fernandes is more synonymous with penalties than goals from open play yet his 11th spot-kick for United was repelled by Karl Darlow just shy of the hour.
He recovered with just his second non-dead ball goal for United to deflate Newcastle and then their dam burst.