Newcastle 0 Manchester United 3: There are occasions in any season that demand a vintage Manchester United response and if losing at home to Tottenham Hotspur for the first time in 23 years last Saturday did not constitute one of them, then it is hard to imagine what does.
In January, Manchester United came to St James’ Park on the back of an even more damaging defeat at home in the Premier League, to Blackburn Rovers, and walked straight into the whirlwind of one of Newcastle United’s best performances of last season. Yesterday it was the home team who fell victim to the ambush and in the first 20 minutes of the game, Alan Pardew’s team were bystanders at their own demolition.
By the time Newcastle had got their bearings and given themselves time to pause for thought, they were two goals down and all but out of the game. There was a brief period of resistance either side of half-time for Pardew’s team when David De Gea’s lack of command in the area put the away side under pressure but otherwise for Newcastle this was like the bad old days of Sir Alex Ferguson’s dominance at St James’ Park.
It was 3-0 to Newcastle in January and the scoreline was repeated yesterday in part thanks to Tom Cleverley’s brilliantly executed goal from the left side, whipped in with his right foot over Steve Harper and dropping precipitously into the top left-hand corner of the Newcastle goalkeeper’s net. Did he mean it? Of course he did. Talent like that always does.
The problem for United will be how Howard Webb views what looked like Robin van Persie’s off-the-ball elbow on Yohan Cabaye. Pardew was insistent that it was violent conduct and if Webb reports that he missed it during the game – and would have dealt a red card had he seen it – then the United striker will be looking at a three-match ban.
It does make you wonder what on earth was going through the mind of Van Persie to get involved with six minutes of the game remaining and his team leading by three goals. The curious formation that Sir Alex Ferguson played – was it 4-2-3-1? Or 4-1-3-2? – seemed to require Van Persie to drop deeper and make more tackles, the one element of his beautiful game that does not work so well.
It was a bad tempered match, peppered with eight bookings, four for each side. Cheick Tioté, who was so outstanding in this fixture in January that United had looked at signing him over the summer, walked a fine line. The full seriousness of his stamp on the thigh of a grounded Cleverley in the first half yesterday was overlooked by Webb, perhaps because play continued.
Otherwise, the opening exchanges were dominated by Manchester United who embarrassed Newcastle to the extent that their second goal was headed in direct from a corner by the diminutive Patrice Evra – and he was being marked at the time by Demba Ba.
There was an energy and purpose about United, especially with Wayne Rooney directing operations in his withdrawn role.
At times, Van Persie, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa were all further up the pitch than Rooney and it makes one double-take to see him so far from goal. There is no doubt he can play there and play there better than most. Whether that is the best deployment of his talents is another matter.
The first goal arrived within eight minutes, headed straight in from Van Persie’s corner by Jonny Evans who got away from Mike Williamson. It is the sort of goal that managers loath to concede and when it is at home to Manchester United in the first ten minutes of a match it is even worse.
Rafael Da Silva hit a shot across the face of the goal after he was played in by Michael Carrick, another critical presence for Manchester United. Then Welbeck picked Steve Harper’s pocket when the goalkeeper had the ball at his feet but could not finish. It was from Rooney’s corner on 15 minutes that Evra stole to the front post and headed the ball in.
Before then only one delightful dribble down the right side by Hatem Ben Arfa had made an impression for Newcastle. They raised their game in the latter stages of the first half and Tioté was unlucky to get booked for a battle of strength he won with Rooney in the midfield – not many can say that – although the Newcastle man should have been cautioned long before then.
The game could have turned with the away side two goals up, seven minutes after half-time. Ba got above De Gea to head Shane Ferguson’s cross against the post. Papou Cissé should have scored from the rebound but De Gea managed to scoop the ball out, and against the post.
For a dreadful moment it looked like one of those occasions when we all wished that the video technology had already been implemented but even to the naked eye it had obviously not completely crossed the line.
Then came Cleverley’s goal. As his team-mates came towards him to celebrate, the amateur lip-readers thought they could see him being told “That was a cross”, to which the goalscorer replied “I meant it!”
Van Persie was lurking at the back post but the immediacy with which Cleverley shaped to shoot suggested he had spotted something about the positioning of Harper that interested him.
It is his first Premier League goal for Manchester United and against a very robust, talented Newcastle central midfield pairing in Cabaye and Tioté – one that laid waste to the United midfield in January, Cleverley did very well.
His team are back up to second place in the Premier League just four points behind the leaders Chelsea with seven games played and above Manchester City on goal difference.
Ferguson’s side have already lost to Everton and Spurs in the league this season and the experience of last season tells them that they cannot afford to drop too many points if they aim to be champions again.
Weaker in some departments? Certainly. But still, on the evidence of this performance, capable of rolling into town and dishing out a lesson to a difficult opponent.