Another fixture rolls along and once again, Manchester United fans can only speculate as to whether this (finally) could be the week that things begin to click into place. Saturday brought another three points at home to Sunderland after — you guessed it — another sub-par performance, with agents Brown and O’Shea collaborating to see that their former employers got their top four charge back on track.
With just three wins on the road all season, it’s twitchy ass time once again for manager and fans alike as the Reds travel to St James Park, looking to rectify some woeful away form in time for forthcoming visits to Anfield, Stamford Bridge and Goodison all to follow within a month of one another.
With top four rivals all facing the prospect of extremely winnable fixtures on Wednesday evening, it’s once again of paramount importance that Manchester United can come away with maximum points against a Newcastle side who look there for the taking under John Carver. (N.B This in no way suggests that we aren’t looking there for the taking in most fixtures.)
Here are five keys to another United victory against Newcastle:
1. Keep Rooney up top
So perhaps the skipper wasn’t quite deployed as a number nine against Sunderland, instead playing off Falcao as more of a shadow striker, but was able to impart himself to much greater extent than his recent midfield forays. Rooney registered five of United’s 30 shots in the match, managing four on target and finding himself on the scoresheet twice, albeit one of those coming from the penalty spot.
Rooney’s impact was further felt in the game’s later stages, after Marouane Fellaini replaced Radamel Falcao, seeing the skipper move into a more advanced position before himself substituted for Juan Mata.
While still not the kind of bullish or dominating performance we’d like to see from Rooney, there certainly were signs of improvement, while his advanced position means he can continue to get into the kind of positions to pounce on rebounds and show predatory instinct as witnessed in his second goal.
Much like the team’s overall performance, Rooney’s was by no means complete, but certainly a step in the right direction.
2. Time to start Januzaj instead of Di Maria
Much has been made of our record signing after another extremely disappointing display, saw him predictably withdrawn at half-time against Sunderland in favour of Adnan Januzaj who looked sharp and industrious following his introduction.
After wowing the Old Trafford faithful after first bursting onto the scene, Di Maria has failed to replicate his early season form, with the manager suggesting it may be next season before we see the best from the £60million man.
As the old cliché goes, ‘form is temporary, but class is permanent’ and Di Maria is clearly going through a temporary, yet drastic swing in fortunes. With a 69% pass completion, the Argentine’s withdrawal came as no surprise to those watching the game on Saturday with confidence severely lacking as he lacks the purpose and industry found during his honey period in Manchester.
It’s inevitably only a matter of time before weighty portions of humble pie are dealt out to critics once again, with our number seven turning in performances befitting of the famous shirt, but perhaps with an FA Cup tie with Arsenal approaching on Monday, maybe let him sit this one out and clear his head and allow Januzaj another chance to prove that last season was no flash in the pan.
3. Stick with the formation
As stated earlier, United’s performance at the weekend was by no means close to our best, in fact, the first half especially was one of the most disappointing, excruciating displays of the campaign to date. However, after much deliberation as to which system the players would line-up in after the announcement of the teams, it became clear before too long that a 4-2-3-1 was the formation of choice on the day.
This system allowed many more players to occupy a more natural position and while the opposition may not have been the strongest, with 30 shots in total and 73% of the overall possession, United’s dominance was plain to see, with all 13 outfield players recording a shot during the game.
Whether the manager opts to settle for the same system again away from home remains to be seen, but if we can do so once again while maintaining the same levels of dominance then there should be no excuse for coming away from St James’ with all three points.
Juan Mata’s inclusion from the start would be a bonus too!
4. Come out of the blocks strong
United, this season have been notoriously slow starters, often waiting until well after half time to produce meaningful attacks or create the chances which have seen us salvage a results.
On many occasions, these changes have come as a result of a direct change, quite literally at times in the form of throwing on Marouane Fellaini and pumping in balls to the Belgian. Needs must I suppose.
With a new formation catering to the players’ strengths, pacey wingers and full backs, coupled with the likes of intelligent forward thinking players in the mould of Blind and Herrera give us an additional string to our bow rather than simply letting Di Maria run into trouble. The return to out-and-out wingers to the side can see us back to playing the Manchester United way and attacking with purpose from the off-set.
Or van Gaal can just try delivering one of his usual half-time team talks before the players initially take the field.
5. Make catching City a realistic possibility
So it may seem a little farfetched still, particularly given our top four status is dangerously under threat from the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham, but City’s defeat to Liverpool at the weekend couple with dismal performances of late see them just five points ahead of United.
With a home tie at Leicester unlikely to cause the Champions major concerns, victory at St James’ keeps us in touch with opportunities to make up further ground before welcoming them to Old Trafford on April 12th. In the meantime there are the small issues of Spurs at home and Liverpool away to content with, but without the motivation to catch a side out of form and just five points ahead then would certainly be a cause for concern.
The idea alone of catching City or even attempting so should add particular spice to the season’s closing months, yet anything other than a victory in Newcastle would certainly shut down any realistic chances of doing so.
With Wes Brown and John O’Shea unfortunately unavailable for selection here and Michael Carrick a little short of match practice, it’s hard to imagine significant changes to the United line-up. Adnan Januzaj impressed during his 45 minute cameo against Sunderland and could come in for Di Maria, while Jones and Shaw return to fitness could have an impact on Smalling and Evans keeping their first team place.
United turned in an impressive display in a 3-1 victory over the Magpies on Boxing Day and will be looking to draw on the same kind of confident performance in the return fixture. With significant personnel changes since then, with John Carver replacing Alan Pardew at the helm, Newcastle have recorded just three victories since then with just one from their previous four at St James’ Park. United will know exactly what is expected of them here and must meet if not exceed these to ensure fourth (or third) place is safe for another round of fixtures at least. An encouraging 2-0 win.
De Gea, Valencia, Jones, Smalling, Rojo, Blind, Herrera, Januzaj, Rooney, Young, Falcao