Manchester United 3-0 Newcastle: Sublime Scholes dictates the game
A comfortable victory for Manchester United – the winning margin could have been greater, but Newcastle were not without their opportunities.
United fielded Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov upfront together, in a fairly traditional 4-4-2 shape with two natural wingers.
Newcastle played their expected 4-4-1-1 shape, with Kevin Nolan deployed in behind Andy Carroll, the lone striker.
The away side started reasonably well – closing down well in midfield, getting into the faces of Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes early on, and breaking with some purpose. The most notable thing about their attacks was that the two wide players, Jonas Gutierrez and Wayne Routledge, made direct, diagonal runs towards goal rather than straight down the flanks – Newcastle lacked width on the break, but got players around Carroll early on.
Manchester United’s shape was as traditional a 4-4-2 as you’re likely to see from any of the ‘top’ Premiership clubs this season. Dimitar Berbatov was generally slightly deeper than Wayne Rooney, and Scholes generally deeper than Fletcher, but these two partnerships were fluid, and frequently switched around. Sometimes Scholes would make runs into the penalty area, whilst sometimes Rooney would come towards the ball and Berbatov would become the frontman. All four players are experienced and intelligent enough to make the fluidity work, and take advantage of the freedom to drift around as they pleased.
The key man was Scholes, as he was in last weekend’s Community Shield contest. Newcastle started by getting Nolan (and sometimes even Carroll) back goalside of him, pressuring him and forcing him into fairly simple sideways and backwards passes. Newcastle’s forwards dropping so deep meant that United had two centre-backs doing little, and it was noticeable that Nemanja Vidic moved forward into a slightly advanced position to distribute the ball. From this unchallenged position he completed 60 passes (from 61 attempted), 15 more than his central defensive partner, Jonny Evans.
As the game wore on, however, Scholes got more and more time on the ball, as Nolan was caught too high up the pitch trying to support Carroll. He exploited this space in two ways – most obviously in taking a bit of time before knocking some incredible long-range passes into wide zones, but also making a surprising number of forward runs to link up with the two strikers – he was nearly on the end of a Berbatov knockdown at 0-0, and soon after was hacked down by Alan Smith when winding up a 25-yard shot.
The gradual decline in pressure on Scholes was replicated elsewhere on the pitch, as Newcastle seemed to tire extremely quickly. This was evident both when defending and attacking – when without the ball they were slower to close down and sloppier in their defensive positioning, and when they looked to build attacks, the likes of Carroll and Barton both charged forward to find the rest of their teammates simply trying to catch their breath.
Scholes creates opener
It was no surprise that Scholes created the first goal – a simple through ball towards Berbatov wasn’t cut out properly by Jose Enrique, and Berbatov powered the ball in. The second followed soon after, when Patrice Evra typically marauded forward and smashed a cross that found its way to Fletcher, who scored from the edge of the six-yard box.
By this stage, there was relatively little tactical interest. Manchester United’s 4-4-2 remained intact for the duration of the game. They were able to press higher and more intensely, and Newcastle’s defenders weren’t confident enough on the ball to play their way out of trouble, often hoofing the ball long and aimlessly towards the end of the first half. Their best chances throughout the game came from the threat of Carroll in the air, but this happened relatively little in open play.
The major question is why Newcastle allowed Scholes such time and space on the ball for much of the game, considering (a) they had a numerical advantage in midfield, (b) they had Nolan well-placed to perform a disciplined, near-man-marking job, and (c) they’d done it so well for the first 15 minutes. The final point would suggest it wasn’t a tactical error by Chris Hughton, so perhaps it had more to do with either tiredness, or Nolan’s determination to not leave Carroll isolated, which left him out of position.
Little changed from either side after half-time, with the home side putting together some fantastic moves – mainly orchestrated by Scholes, and a couple of times ending with poor Berbatov finishes – the Bulgarian had a good game overall, but should have scored more than once.
Scholes creates clincher
Scholes was the main man, but the performance of his midfield colleague, Darren Fletcher, should not be overlooked. He consistently made diagonal runs into wide areas to support the wingers and make overlaps, creating space in the centre of midfield for Scholes, and for United’s full-backs to move into more central areas. His energy is probably vital if Scholes is to be deployed successfully in a two-man midfield – you need someone to charge around and drag the opposition out of position in order for Scholes to work his magic.
No prizes for guessing who grabbed the assist for substitute Ryan Giggs’ goal which finished the game late on. It was the sixth time Scholes had hit a long diagonal ball into a left-wing position, and the left-footed Giggs provided the finish that the right-footed Nani might not have been able to.
A thoroughly enjoyable performance from Manchester United, who combined style and substance – and also provided a good advert for the 4-4-2 formation that has taken such a battering in the wake of England’s World Cup exit. How often they will play that shape remains to be seen – Ferguson opted for variations of 4-5-1 in ‘big’ games last season, and especially away from home.
Elsewhere, little has changed. Antonio Valencia hugs the touchline and gets crosses in, whilst on the other side Nani cuts in and allows Evra forward on the overlap. This taught us little we didn’t know about United, and in the end served as a bonus pre-season friendly.
Maybe that’s what Newcastle were treating it as – nothing to lose on the first day of the season, and they gave it a go rather than lying down and waiting to be beaten. They manufactured some decent opportunities for Carroll, who missed a glorious chance early on, and their basic shape was OK. They paid the price for not dealing with Scholes, however, and were deservedly beaten.Manchester United 3-0 Newcastle: Sublime Scholes dictates the game