Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s perfect start to life as Manchester United manager continued on Wednesday, as his side saw off Newcastle United 2-0 at St. James’ Park. It wasn’t as dominant a performance as we’ve become accustomed to in recent weeks, but second half strikes from Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford ensured the Reds kicked off the new calendar year with all three points.
The first half was a peculiar affair, marked primarily by the absence of any discernible pattern of play. The ball bounced around loosely in midfield, and the two best chances followed more obviously from defensive mistakes than attacking ingenuity. The first was Newcastle’s, though Phil Jones managed to scramble back to dispossess Salomón Rondón after being caught in possession by Ayoze Pérez. At the other end, a hopeful hoof somehow bounced between the two Newcastle centre-halves, though goalkeeper Martin Dúbravka got to the ball just before Rashford could bring it under control.
There were further half-chances at both ends of the pitch, but little more than that. Dúbravka nipped the ball away from the feet of a lurking Juan Mata just past the half-hour, shortly before Rondón nodded a floaty DeAndre Yedlin cross harmlessly over the crossbar. As the interval grew nearer, the urgency dropped, and both sides looked content to head in at halftime with the scores level. United were marginally on top, though in a game so lacking in quality, that wasn’t saying a great deal.
United saw the lion’s share of possession after the restart, though Newcastle looked just as likely to score. Substitute Jonjo Shelvey’s impressive range of passing probed the gaps in the Reds’ back line, and both Pérez and Christian Atsu might have done better after being threaded through on the counter-attack. Solskjær’s response was to shake things up in attack, and just past the hour Mata and Anthony Martial made way for Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez.
It proved the correct decision. With his very first touch of the game, Lukaku gave United the lead, poking home from point-blank range after Dúbravka spilled a Rashford free-kick into his path. Newcastle may have felt hard done by, but they mustered little riposte in the final half-hour. They came closest when Christian Atsu let fly from the edge of the United box, though replays showed his powerful effort to have flashed comfortably wide.
Instead it was United who netted the game’s second goal, catching the Magpies on the counter with 10 minutes left on the clock. Lukaku’s work in the right channel bought Alexis Sánchez the space to thread Rashford through, and the on-form forward made no mistake with his free shot from the edge of the six-yard box. The upshot was another win for Solskjær’s United, and another deserved win — even if their least convincing to date. Still, we can’t expect to win every game by four goals …