Fresh off the back of a second consecutive win in Europe, United will look to rectify their domestic form with a tough fixture away from home against an in-form Newcastle United outfit.
It might be early in the season but this will already be the second time these two teams have faced off, with United winning the previous encounter 2-1 in the third round of the Capital One Cup. Goals from Anderson and Cleverley delivered the result on a night where both teams fielded weakened line ups, but this weekend’s Premier League fixture at the Sports Direct Arena on Sunday promises to be a much more intense affair.
The Toon army will come into the game on the back of some mixed form. Since losing 2-1 to United in the League Cup last week, the Magpies were held to a 2-2 draw at the Madejski stadium where they played Reading, before hammering French outfit FC Bordeaux 3-0 in Europa League action, which should ensure the players are riding on a high as they welcome a United side that continues to underwhelm.
United’s win in Europe was one achieved without really impressing yet again, but it is fair to assume, given the way the game panned out, that United were looking to get the points whilst exerting as little energy as possible against Romanian minnows Cluj. They achieved that to a large extent, and should be fresh heading into this fixture, but concerns will surely remain after last weekend’s poor first half performance in which the Red Devils were completely overrun by Tottenham Hotspurs. United will face similar problems to last week in choosing how to deal with a very physical, quick and high quality midfield likely to play a very intense high-pressure game. With players like Cheik Tiote, Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa, there is a very real possibility that Newcastle could recreate a number of the problems that United failed to deal with so spectacularly at Old Trafford last weekend.
Indeed, they are the same problems that United failed to deal with last season, when Newcastle smashed the Red Devils 3-0 at the Sports Direct Arena.
Suffice to say then, that Sir Alex Ferguson is aware of the difficulty of the task at hand come Sunday evening:
“It’s always a difficult place to go. They’ll be buoyed by their support. I think Alan Pardew has a really good team there. After the game against Tottenham we have to make sure we don’t lose.
“We played some really good football at times [against Tottenham] and it was interesting to play Rooney, Chicharito and Robin van Persie together. It gives me some thoughts and options for certain games.
“I watched Newcastle last night and they played a few of their squad and left a few others out. But they still won convincingly. It was a good performance and a good result for them.
“Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse both have good scoring records. They rested Ba last night and played Shola Ameobi. I’m not sure what combination it will be on Sunday. Ba and Ameobi are both strong, while Cisse has scored some fantastic goals for them. The third goal last night was excellent.”
Sir Alex will welcome back all of Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes to the side, after all three sat out the midweek action. Jonny Evans has also been declared fit, after he was substituted early from the game in Romania after appearing to be limping quite heavily. Antonio Valencia is seemingly out of contention still after failing to recover from an ankle knock, but there is good news for United with Chris Smalling having begun full training, and Sir Alex also has confirmed that Ashley Young will recommence training over the international break with the hope of getting back into the first team for United’s next home game:
“Smalling has started training on the football side. That helps us, particularly as we have a problem at centre-back.
“Ashley will start training while the internationals are on, particularly during the second week. He could, at a stretch, be back for the Stoke game [on Saturday 20 October].”
Alan Pardew has overseen a fantastic record at the Sports Direct Arena since taking over the club in 2009. In his time at the club, Newcastle have only lost four home games in all competitions, a feat Pardew has attributed in part to the team’s fanatic home support. Pardew has called on his supporters to ensure that United are welcomed by a vociferous atmosphere ahead of kick off on Sunday evening, stating that whilst the club was very proud of their 3-0 thrashing of Manchester United at home last season, it was important that the team was focused on the task at hand this weekend, consigning the result to the past:
“It’s always great to see Manchester United come to our stadium and I’m hoping this place is rocking on Sunday.
“The fans played a massive part against Bordeaux on Thursday and we have now set the Manchester United game up – we have to make sure we put in a performance that follows that.
“When the stadium is like that it is difficult for any team, and our stadium will be rocking and rolling.
“It [last season's 3-0 win over United] was probably the stand-out result from our season, and we were very proud of that.
“But that is history and it’s gone now.
“So it’s about this game and we are in good shape.”
Pardew has made no secret of where he believes Newcastle’s best chances of success lie either, stating that the club’s host of in-form strikers offered Newcastle a vast range of options going into the game, particularly against a United defence that has not particularly impressed in recent weeks:
“All our strikers have scored this week – Shola has scored, Demba has scored, Papiss has scored and, if I’m honest, Shola is playing at the same level as the other two.
“He’s in contention to start against Manchester United. That’s great news because it breeds competition. Our fans now realise how important Shola is to us whereas I think in the past they didn’t. He’s improving as he gets older. He’s maturing like a good wine.”
Perhaps I should stop calling this section “Matt’s Predictions” and just call it, “What Matt wants to see”.
I would hate to big note myself and pretend that I have half a clue, but having watched every United game thus far this season, as I’m sure you have, I think I can make some pretty agreeable predictions about how this game might pan out if Sir Alex doesn’t heed last week’s warnings, and grants all three of Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs an immediate return to the side.
We’ll probably lose.
At this point, I don’t think that’s an overreaction, or me jumping the gun, it’s just a reality. The fact is, the likes of Cheik Tiote, Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa are far too dynamic and physical a trio for Carrick and Scholes to handle on their own. If those two are to start in the middle of the park, then they will undoubtedly need a third player in the middle of the park to help them out.
We saw last week in the Capital One Cup tie how ineffective Tiote was when we matched Newcastle for numbers in midfield. With Darren Fletcher sweeping in front of the back four, and Tom Cleverley buzzing around further afield with Anderson, both of whom did a great job of linking midfield and attack as well as breaking up the Newcastle midfield. Whether or not that is the midfield trio to start what will undoubtedly be a tougher, more intense fixture is debatable, but I would have thought that it would certainly be the model to follow.
Picking the right trio is crucial, and personally I would rather only won of Carrick and Scholes started, with two higher energy players flanking the one that does start, but I have a feeling that both will start, meaning I can only hope that Sir Alex does indeed drop an extra player into the midfield. Both players undoubtedly offer plenty of quality on the ball, don’t get me wrong, but those attributes are meaningless when you can’t win the ball back, a task that both would struggle with without the help of an extra man against such a complimenting trio of midfielders as Newcastle currently possess.
With the absence of any real in-form winger, a front trio of Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie and Shiniji Kagawa offers a high work rate, great versatility and most importantly plenty of quality. Kagawa could either start on the left side of Van Persie, as depicted in the little graphic I worked up ahead, or tuck in behind a more central strike duo of Rooney and Van Persie, whilst both Rooney and Kagawa could also operate a little deeper behind Van Persie, who would look to create as much space as possible for the creative duo by pressing high on the shoulder of the last man.
At the back, left back and the goalkeeper would seem to be the only two positions up for grabs. With Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and Rafael all fit, it is hard to see any of them being dropped, particularly with a lack of any readily available, senior, replacements. Patrice Evra’s form means his position is no longer untenable, although I personally felt despite being culpable in the extreme for Cluj’s goal in midweek, the rest of his performance was quite solid. It is also worth remembering that whilst Alexander Buttner enjoyed a stunning debut against Wigan, it was a game in which his defensive qualities were hardly put under the microscope.
In goals, I would think (hope) that David De Gea’s mid-week heroics would land him a starting berth, but of course, it is never so simple where Sir Alex is concerned.
It would seem a little obvious to state that this game will be won in the middle of the park, most games are, but I genuinely fear that Sir Alex would be handing Newcastle a win should he make the same selection mistakes as last week be made once more. No matter how we line up, it is of imperative importance that someone is dropping into the midfield to even up the numbers, particularly if both Scholes and Carrick are playing, unless we like the idea of having an easily by-passable midfield to expose an out of sorts defence, that really needs all the help it can get at the moment.
Newcastle are a very good team, and one that truly exposed us last time around, in much the same vein as Tottenham last week. This Sunday will be a grueling, tough encounter, but it is one that we have every chance of navigating successfully, if Sir Alex picks a team that enables us too. Failing to do so will bring about a similar performance and a similar result as last week.