Ole’s overpowering Reds ran out 4-1 winners in Cristiano Ronaldo’s second Old Trafford debut on Saturday. Here are three things we learned where we’re going to try and not focus on the midfield!
1. Tactics? Who needs tactics?
In the first 10 minutes of the match it seemed like United had prepared Nemanja Matic for the fact that Newcastle were going to leave him in acres of space as they focused on shutting down Paul Pogba.
Everything was going to run through Matic and just like the Wolves and Southampton matches United’s chance of success was going to come down to how well he handled this. Matic started brightly passing between the lines
and as a result United were able to push forward and look threatening.
Then after 10 minutes they just... stopped. For a while in the first half it looked like Newcastle had finally settled into the match while United had completely settled out of it. At one point they even had Pogba and Matic swap sides as if it was the left side right side dynamic that was preventing Pogba from getting involved and not the whole ‘we’re focused on stopping Pogba thing.’
One of Matic’s biggest strengths is his patience on the ball. Whereas Fred is always looking to move the ball quickly (whether that’s forward, square, or backwards) Matic is poised enough to take what the defense gives him. If there wasn’t a forward pass available he didn’t pass it sideways for the sake of passing, he took it himself and drove forward.
Eventually United settled back down and let Matic run the show, which he did really well. There were still some tactical issues that needed to be worked out. Cristiano Ronaldo drifting out into the left half-space often relegated Jadon Sancho to being a touchline winger, which is not at all how you want to use him on the left side. Sancho still managed to create six shots and carry the ball into the box five times. Those are really good numbers for 90 minutes, and Sancho only played 65.
On the other side Mason Greenwood’s tendency to drift inside often left Aaron Wan-Bissaka isolated and ensured that United’s right side remained a black hole. They could have solved this issue by swapping Sancho over there, but then you’re taking Greenwood out of his preferred position. Perhaps when everyone is fit, this isn’t the right combination of players to use against low blocks?
None of this mattered though because even though there was very little chemistry on the pitch (there usually isn’t in the first game after an international break) and players weren’t being used to the best of their abilities, those players not at their best were much better than Newcastle and could wear them down and grind out goals. The midfield was cut through a bit too easily, but they were ok with that because they have Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane behind them to clean up the mess. That is exactly what should happen when you play Newcastle.
This game really reminded me of the 2007-08 team (not just because Ronaldo was back on the pitch). That team didn’t press, they sat back and let the opposition bring the ball forward in order to create space behind them where Ronaldo, Rooney, and Tevez would run rampant. They were totally ok letting you run at them because they knew they had defenders who could win 1v1 battles. But when teams didn’t let Rooney and Tevez run in behind United could struggle to break them down, often relying on a piece of magic (or a set piece) from Ronaldo to get their breakthrough.
They didn’t play like that when they faced AC Milan, but they did when they faced clubs in the bottom half of the Premier League table. Just because United played like this on Saturday, doesn’t mean they’ll be as open and reckless against a Chelsea or Liverpool. It was Newcastle.
2. Turns out Paul Pogba is quite good
Earlier in the week it was announced that Fred would be suspended for this match and somehow it became a question over who would start in midfield for United, with many suggesting that in Fred’s absence United should turn to attacking midfielder Donny van de Beek. Given Pogba’s performances from the left wing in the first two matches, it seemed everyone forgot that he’s still a pretty good midfielder. Especially when you put him next to Nemanja Matic.
Since the start of the 2019-20 season United have won 11 of the 13 Premier League matches Pogba and Matic have started together. Most of those have come against teams playing in a low block.
The two compliment each other very well as Matic is very good at creating angles and space for Pogba to dictate play from deep. He can also hold his own on the ball which is becoming more and more important as teams start to just sit on Pogba and leave his partner all alone.
Even though United stopped giving the ball to Matic in the first half, eventually they settled back down and let Matic run the show, which he did really well. He lead United with 13 progressive passes and a whopping 24 progressive carries (launching him to 9th in the PL in progressive carries per 90).
Matic taking advantage of the space forced Newcastle to start playing United’s midfield more honestly which took the pressure off Pogba and allowed him to thrive. Pogba touched the ball 124 times, completed 12 progressive passes along with another 18 progressive carries and passed the ball into the final third a staggering 23 times (by far the most in a match this season).
Dropping him deeper allowed United to have a deeper creator giving them another element to their attack, even if it wasn’t always coming off.
Given Pogba had recorded five assists in his first two games playing on the left wing, the hesitancy to drop him deeper is understandable. But Pogba maintained his production adding another two assists and a pre-assist to boot.
Pogba thrives in a deep role for France partially because he has N’Golo Kante next to him and a lot because you’re afforded much more time and space on the ball in international football. Given that Newcastle was giving him time and space it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he was once again thriving.
Left wing Paul Pogba is still the best version of Paul Pogba, but the one in midfield is still pretty damn good.
3. We know where Donny van de Beek is in the pecking order
With 66 minutes gone by and United holding a 2-1 lead Jadon Sancho came off the pitch to be replaced by... Jesse Lingard.
Considering a large amount of fans were asking for Van de Beek to start the match in a midfield role Ole’s substitutions against Newcastle told us a lot about how he viewed his players and where they are in the pecking order.
The Lingard sub wasn’t about getting a player minutes or pulling someone off. It was tactical.
Cristiano Ronaldo has never been known for his defensive workrate and that’s only become more true with age. When he’s on the pitch, other players have to pick up the burden. On Saturday that fell to Sancho and Greenwood. It’s tough to do the running of multiple players over 90 minutes, even tougher when you’re battling back from a knock picked up in England camp so it’s understandable why Ole wanted to get Sancho off. But holding on to just a one goal lead, he needed to make sure he was bringing on someone that was reliable defensively. He clearly sees Lingard ahead of Van de Beek in that regard.
Eventually United would get a third goal and Soslakjer could move into just removing players. Van de Beek came on for Fernandes in exactly the role he was signed to do, help ensure Bruno doesn’t have to play every minute. Paul Pogba might be a defensive liability in midfield but if Ole thought Van de Beek was a better option defensively there to close out a close match he either would have brought him on for Pogba sooner, or pushed Pogba further forward when Donny did come on. Leaving it as is shows you exactly how Ole sees Donny, especially given that Pogba had been on a yellow the entire time.
I do think Donny has a breakout year this year, but that’s largely based on playing with Sancho as their games complement each others very well. When it was Sancho being taken off early, bringing Donny on wouldn’t have been putting him in a chance to be successful.
When all was said and done we didn’t learn anything from this match. One game (especially one against Newcastle) is just not a sample size. The Cristiano Ronaldo 2.0 era got off to a great start but that’s not a guarantee that he’ll be a rousing success. Both Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored four goals in their first three appearances but never ushered in the eras of success that were hoped for. These things always start well, the question is can they be maintained.
The difference here is that Ronaldo is better than both Zlatan and Lukaku, and the surrounding cast is also better. This wasn’t a perfect performance by any means but it was also the first match back from an international break. Most of these guys barely had time to even train together. It was never going to be pretty.
United won because they’re just a much better team than Newcastle and they wore them down. Guess what? That’s ok! That’s going to happen in quite a few games this season because United are a much better team than most of the squad they’ll be playing, but it’s silly to say “they won’t be able to do this against a City, Liverpool, or even Leicester” because they weren’t playing City or Liverpool or Leicester. They were playing Newcastle. We have enough evidence from the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era to know that when United play the big boys, he’ll have a specific plan for that match. If he doesn’t, that’ll be it’s own problem but it will have nothing to do with the fact that United overpowered Newcastle on sheer talent.