Manchester United staged a comeback for the ages to defeat Newcastle 3-2 at Old Trafford on Saturday. Here are five quick thoughts on the match.
Back from the dead
If Manchester United players wanted to quit on José Mourinho, this was the perfect opportunity. The Reds found themselves down 2-0 after just ten minutes thanks to some truly calamitous defending (more on that later). Winless in their last four home matches — and with the press reporting that Mourinho would be sacked this weekend win or lose — it looked bleak.
But the very players reportedly furious and alienated by Mourinho’s management instead came to his rescue. Second half goals from Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, and Alexis Sánchez reversed the early deficit and handed United a much-needed victory. Not to mention also saving the job of the manager they supposedly hate.
Afterwards, Mourinho scoffed at the idea that his players were inspired to win the match for their beleaguered boss. “I think it’s just ridiculous talk,” he told MUTV. “What I asked of the players was to give absolutely everything.”
In the second half, they did just that. Time will tell what this result means in the long run, but Saturday’s thrilling comeback sure feels like a turning point for this United side.
Paul Pogba drops back — and steps up
During United’s recent struggles, Mourinho criticized the inability of his center backs to bring the ball out of defense and launch attacks from the back. In the first half against Newcastle, it was more of the same as the Reds labored to string together passes and get the ball forward.
Trailing 2-0 and with his job possibly on the line, the manager sent his team out for the second half with a very unexpected tactical wrinkle — dropping Paul Pogba deeper in midfield than ever before.
Mourinho deployed Pogba, the club’s record signing who prefers to attack up field, much deeper than normal to provide a link between the defenders and midfield. At times, he played so far back that some fans (and reporters) thought he was part of a three-man central defense.
This move flew in the face of all conventional wisdom — that Pogba struggles when asked to play deep and must be unchained to move box-to-box as he sees fit. But Mourinho’s move worked. Really, really well.
Pogba responded with a man of the match performance and even assisted on Martial’s equalizer with a deft flick into the Frenchman’s path. This certainly won’t be his everyday role, but, at least for one day, it did the trick.
The defense is still a mess
Last season, Manchester United allowed just 28 goals in league play, only one more than top-ranked Manchester City. No other Premier League team even came close to the Manchester clubs in defensive excellence. But many of those gaudy numbers came courtesy of the magnificent David de Gea in goal.
A repeat performance always seemed like a big ask, but I don’t think anyone expected this.
United have already allowed 14 goals — half of last season’s total — and we’re only in early October.
Newcastle gashed United’s defense for two goals in the opening minutes on Saturday and continued to dominate for long stretches of the first half. That comes just a week after allowing three goals to Newcastle.
Over the summer, Mourinho desperately chased a new center back to solidify the backline. His efforts to recruit either Toby Alderweireld or Harry Maguire were reportedly rebuffed by Ed Woodward, who felt those moves lacked long-term value. This summer’s neglect is now showing up on the scoreboard.
No matter what anyone thinks of Mourinho, the man knows how to organize a defense. He should have been trusted to make a high-profile signing at center back, even though Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf have had their ups and downs. Manchester United might pay for this mistake all season long.
An unlikely hero
It’s been a tough season for Alexis Sánchez. Hopes were sky-high for the Chilean after his first summer off in almost a decade, but Alexis has looked a step slow and completely out of sorts in the early going. He’s been feuding with Mourinho and even lost his automatic spot in the starting eleven.
On Saturday, though, Alexis finally made an impact on the pitch. A second-half substitute, he popped up with a dramatic late winner that will be remembered for years to come. His 90th minute header secured all three points for United and staved off a potential crisis.
Perhaps this big moment will galvanize Alexis and bring out his world-class best.
Huge tests await
United players now jet off to join their national teams for a week with a spring in their step. When they return, though, the club will face their biggest challenge of the early season — matches against Chelsea and Juventus.
On October 20, the Reds head to Stamford Bridge to take on Maurizio Sarri’s unbeaten Chelsea. Then, just three days later, Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus come to Old Trafford for an important Group H match.
Luke Shaw might be forced to sit out England’s two Nations League fixtures after picking up an undisclosed injury on Saturday. Hopefully Shaw will rest up over the international break and be ready to continue his sparkling form for Manchester United once league play resumes.
If the Reds are going to build on this big Newcastle victory, they’re going to need all hands on deck. It doesn’t get much tougher than back-to-back games against Chelsea and Juve.