EPL 2020/21: Newcastle United vs Manchester United – tactical analysis
Club football returned to action after the international break with Manchester United travelling to St. James’ Park to take on Newcastle United in the English Premier League. The Red Devils were demolished by Tottenham Hotspur in their previous fixture two weeks ago, letting in six in a miserable performance that raised eyebrows over the future of Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Steve Bruce’s Newcastle side came into the fixture on the back of a 3-1 win over Burnley and were looking to make the most out of Manchester United’s poor start to the season. In this tactical analysis, we will look at the tactics used by both the sides and our analysis will show how they influenced the game.
The hosts made one change from their previous game, with club captain Jamaal Lascelles returning in place of Fabian Schär. Karl Darlow had been impressive in between the sticks and was proving to be a more than able replacement for the injured Martin Dúbravka. The Newcastle attack was also looking much better this season, with free signing Callum Wilson having scored four goals in his four appearances heading into this game. He had the support from the likes of Allan Saint-Maximin, Jeff Hendrik, Jonjo Shelvey, and Joelinton who started in midfield as the Magpies started off with a 4-1-4-1 formation. However, the use of Joelinton on the right-wing also gave Bruce the option of switching this up to a 4-4-2 as well.
Manchester United made five changes from the side that lost at home to Spurs, with Victor Lindelöf replacing Eric Bailly in the heart of defence while Scott McTominay and Fred replaced Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matić in midfield. Daniel James and Juan Mata started as well, replacing Mason Greenwood and the suspended Anthony Martial. Deadline day signing Edinson Cavani’s ineligibility to play this fixture meant that Marcus Rashford played as the sole striker for the side with Bruno Fernandes playing behind him. Although the side seemed very different to that of the usual Manchester United lineup, the formation stayed the same with Solskjær sticking to his preferred 4-2-3-1 set up.
Newcastle sit back and look for counters
Bruce’s side maintained their organised 4-1-4-1 formation in the early stages of the game, leaving Wilson to press the defenders while the four behind him maintained their line with United’s midfield. The fact that the visitors were operating with a double pivot meant that Newcastle ran the risk of being bypassed too easily should they commit to an active press. Hence, they left Wilson further up the field and ensured that Fred and McTominay were kept in front of the midfield line. The one defensive midfielder behind them, Isaac Hayden, looked to cut out the passes and close down players should the opposition break the lines with a pass. This allowed Newcastle time to fall back and snuff out the danger as soon as possible.
This could also transform into a 4-5-1 very simply when the ball was in Newcastle’s half. By this time, the midfield four had dropped back to Hayden’s line and the compact midfield structure meant that United were outnumbered in midfield. Fred and McTominay are not well known for moving higher up the pitch and with just Fernandes and Mata moving around the centre, the visitors were unable to create good attacks through the centre. Rashford had been used as a winger increasingly over the years and took time to settle into the centre-forward role as well. This meant that he was not a proper threat for the centre-backs and considering the fact that he is not the strongest in the air, any crosses into the box proved futile as well. In this way, the well organised Newcastle team could contain the Manchester United attack.
This also meant that Newcastle could look to hit the visitors on the counter as well. With Wilson playing much higher, Newcastle had a player who they could use to set-up counter-attacks upon winning the ball. The forward could hold up play and turn as well, allowing his midfielders to join him before running at the centre-backs. Saint-Maximin was an obvious threat as well with his pace and skill and he looked to attack the half-spaces on the counter, in order to dribble into dangerous areas before playing a pass or having a shot. The counter-attacking worked almost immediately, with Newcastle having a goal inside two minutes, a quick counter saw Saint-Maximin connect with Shelvey who then played Emil Krafth through and his cross was deflected in by Luke Shaw. Bruce had used similar tactics when the side met at St. James’ Park last season and it appeared that it had paid off yet again.
The Mata and Fernandes combination
With Mata starting his first Premier League game of the season, it was interesting to see how Manchester United operated considering that the Spaniard is not a natural right-winger. Off the ball, United looked to press the hosts with Fernandes joining Rashford to press the centre-backs with either McTominay or Fred moving to press the pivot. Mata and James maintained their positions down the wing in this phase and were tasked with pressing the full-backs. This seemed a fairly straightforward tactic considering that United lined up with nearly the same formation but the scenario was very different once they were in possession.
With Pogba not starting, there was a shortage of creativity through the centre and Mata was the man to make up for this. While Fernandes played his usual free role, Mata moved towards the centre and even to the left-hand side, depending on where the ball was. His role was to operate in the half-spaces and create a numerical advantage down the side that the ball was being played. This also meant that Fernandes could not be surrounded by Newcastle players as they would have to watch for Mata as well.
The pair was aided by Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bisakka, who operated very high up the pitch to provide the width for Manchester United. This spread the Newcastle defence and opened up spaces for the likes of Mata, James and Rashford to exploit. Owing to Mata’s movement towards the centre, Wan-Bisakka effectively operated as a right-winger when looking at his position on the pitch. This, however, was a risky move considering that Saint-Maximin operated down the same side and any error could see him run at the centre-backs with pace but since Manchester United had two defensive midfielders, they were able to close him down and hold him up for long enough. The fact that United enjoyed the lion’s share of possession also meant that Saint-Maximin was pushed much deeper and he often had to run a great distance when he received the ball. Hence, Manchester United could make use of these tactics effectively in attack and defence.
Mata and Fernandes would also swap positions at times when the ball was played down the right, with Wan-Bisakka pushing even higher in this case. The quality of Mata as an attacking midfielder is undoubted and with the versatility of Fernandes, he was able to operate as an attacking midfielder in certain phases as well. This confused the Newcastle defenders who had to sort out their positioning to ensure that they were not dragged out of their respective areas by the two midfielders while also covering the likes of Shaw and Wan-Bisakka who would push as high as possible.
Manchester United looked to contain Newcastle within their own third and also pushed Fred and McTominay further up so that Mata and Fernandes would have players to pass to while they rotated their positions. This also made it easier for United to move the ball from flank to flank with simple passing combinations as they looked to create gaps in the Newcastle defence for the attackers to exploit. The combination of Mata and Fernandes itself was proving to be a handful for Newcastle and the pair combined for what looked like an equaliser before it was disallowed for offside in the build-up. However, their effort eventually paid off when a resultant corner created by these tactics was headed home by Harry Maguire.
Impact off the bench sees Manchester United home
The introduction of Pogba and Donny van de Beek in place of Fred and James provided extra creativity in midfield for Manchester United. Fernandes moved into the left-winger role while van de Beek became the free-roaming midfielder and supported Mata through the centre. With Pogba on the pitch as well, United could push their attackers further forward as the passing quality of Pogba meant that the midfielders would not be required to drop back to receive the ball in the build-up.
The Frenchman could act as a deep-lying playmaker and distribute the ball to his attackers with greater precision than Fred, who had started. Where Manchester United had failed to dominate in the early stages, they could now control with ease as they were miles apart in terms of quality in the midfield. They were able to play the ball through the centre and were not restricted to just wing play and this made them much more dangerous.
The two substitutes in particular combined very nicely with each other, breaking the lines with ease with van de Beek exploiting the spaces brilliantly. He was able to receive the ball and then turn and combine with his teammates which greatly increased the attacking threat for Manchester United. Fernandes could also attack the half-spaces from the wing and the Newcastle defence looked uncomfortable defending against these tactics. The visitors had started piling on the pressure in search of a winner and were finding fluidity in the midfield that Newcastle had looked to dominate and the hosts simply had no answer.
Manchester United were even more dangerous on the counter as well, as they could easily play through the midfield and then distribute the ball back out wide. With the Newcastle midfielders now forced to get bodies behind the ball, they left open spaces for United through the centre in the counter. Rashford and Fernandes could easily push down the wings while Pogba, van de Beek and Mata would move through the spaces in the centre before playing either of the two attackers through.
This was precisely the case for Manchester United’s second goal. With van de Beek operating in his free role, he could drop back and then combine with Mata, who had played through the centre as he had through the game. Rashford and Fernandes could exploit the wings and within moments, United were at the other end of the pitch with Rashford setting up the overlapping Fernandes who finished perfectly into the top corner. The impact of the two substitutes was immense for the Red Devils who were clearly bossing the midfield and eventually, with good combinations through the centre and wings, they managed to score two more before the end of the game.
Newcastle suffered their second loss of the season but were still ahead of their opponents in this game by a point. They looked like they would steal a point or maybe more especially after Darlow’s impressive penalty save but could not match up to the ruthless Manchester United attack after the substitutions. The performance before that would be something to draw from though and Bruce’s side would be hoping to put this defeat behind them as soon as possible. Coming up against an inconsistent Wolves side so far this season, it would be interesting to see if the Magpies would bounce back from this defeat away from home.
Manchester United were able to put their horrific performance against Tottenham behind them and headed into their tough run of fixtures with a win. Their next five fixtures saw them play Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, RB Leipzig, Arsenal and league leaders Everton in what is arguably the biggest test of the squad’s character this season. The rumours surrounding Solskjær’s job had also seemingly evaporated but any slip-ups in the next two weeks and they would certainly be doing the rounds once again.