Newcastle United 3-0 Manchester United: Newcastle combine high pressure and long balls

January 5, 2012

The starting line-ups

Newcastle gave an excellent performance to overpower Manchester United, and inflict their second straight defeat.

Alan Pardew gave Shola Ameobi a start upfront, which hinted that Newcastle would play more direct than usual. He also used Ryan Taylor in an unusual narrow right-sided midfield role, with Davide Santon at left-back.

Sir Alex Ferguson went with Dimitar Berbatov after his good run of form, with Wayne Rooney restored to the side. Antonio Valencia was at right-back, and the midfield partnership was Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick, the combination which Ferguson used during the Champions League knockout stages last year.

This was essentially a very simple game – two fairly standard 4-4-2s doing battle. Manchester United’s problems in the centre of midfield can be considered on a wider scale, but this match primarily came down to two factors.

High press

In his post-match interview, Pardew was clear on why he thought Newcastle succeeded. “We won today because we controlled the game in terms of what we wanted to do. We wouldn’t let them play, I thought we took a bit of a gamble in terms of a high press on them, and then physically and aerially we had an advantage, and we capitalised on that.”

It’s as succinct and accurate a summary as you’ll ever get from a manager, and Pardew should take much of the credit for this display. Manchester United made individual mistakes in the defeat to Blackburn, but here they were thoroughly outplayed.

Starting with the high press, there were two reasons why this worked well for Newcastle. First, it meant the midfield battle was frantic, fast-paced and scrappy. This doesn’t suit Ferguson’s side – when they play two ‘passers’ in the centre, rather than a more energetic player like Anderson or Darren Fletcher, they need the game to be calm, slow and thoughtful, rather than a warzone. The most obvious example of this was in the 2-1 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last season. In the first half they controlled the tempo and were 1-0 up, but when Chelsea hit them with force, Carrick and Paul Scholes couldn’t cope.

That game was also similar in terms of being 4-4-2 v 4-4-2, and the formations, whilst not a crucial factor, were of importance – it meant Newcastle could close down United in midfield without fear of being passed around. It’s far easier to press 2 v 2 than 2 v 3. A lot of balls were won in standard defensive midfield positions, but there was also a willingness to press higher up.

United attackers

On that note, the positioning of Rooney must be questioned. He seemed to stay high up the pitch and expect service, whereas dropping deeper would have been much more promising – potentially drawing a defender out from the back, or getting himself free in space. That said, Newcastle did well to remain compact, with the defence pushing much higher up the pitch than they’ve been used to this season.

Most impressively, they were brave enough to hold a high line even when Ferguson introduced the pace of Javier Hernandez – the back four worked excellently as a unit and caught Hernandez offside three times in his 25 minute spell – he only completed two passes.

Long balls

The second key tactic was Newcastle’s use of long balls – quite obviously, this contributed to the first goal (finished superbly by Demba Ba) and the third (turned into his own net by Phil Jones).

Without Nemanja Vidic, United are vulnerable at the back in a different way. With the Serb in the side, they dropped very deep and were prone to shots from distance. With a more mobile player like Jones (or Chris Smalling), they can play higher up the pitch, but are less secure in the air. Pardew recognised that and exploited it well.

Tim Krul kicked the ball long almost every time he had it, whilst Ameobi played as a simple battering ram, winning balls in the air and attempting to flick them on towards Ba. Jones tried to stay very tight to Ameobi, leaving Rio Ferdinand behind covering, and picking up Ba. It was often incredible how deep Ferdinand played, meaning the distance between the centre-backs was huge.

It was also surprising that Jones was so poor in the air. He’s very inexperienced, of course, but this is a player who was brilliant on his Blackburn debut by getting the better of Didier Drogba when it came to aerial battles. If you can cope with Drogba, you should be able to cope with Ameobi. The wind clearly didn’t help, and Jones deserves more chances at the back.


It seems patronising to propose that the reason Newcastle won was about “being physical”, but as Pardew acknowledged, it was a key factor. The away side didn’t have enough strength in the centre of the pitch, and were also weak at the back.

An equally important factor was the bravery of Newcastle’s positioning without the ball – they pressed up high and pushed Manchester United back – Rooney and Berbatov were barely involved and were both removed, and Hernandez had little impact. It was a particularly admirable tactic because Newcastle are usually much more submissive in the defensive phase of play, but Pardew saw the opposition’s weakness and exploited it well.

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