Newcastle United – Manchester United: Solskjær’s run continues as United beat defensive Newcastle (0-2)

During the first half, the mobility and vision of Juan Mata allowed United to control an unruly Newcastle side. During the second half, the entrance of Jonjo Shelvey and a more aggressive defense allowed Newcastle to better control the game. However, United’s superior offensive talent would ultimately allow them to create the better chances… and score them.

Tactical analysis by José Pérez.

United have been sailing smoothly under caretaker coach Ole Gunnar Solskjær. It is hard to know how much of United’s improved results are due to the upswing that generally occurs when changing managers, and how much is due to Solskjær’s more proactive tactics. That being said, Solskjær has certainly lifted the veil of gloominess hovering over the club, and their players and fans now seem far more optimistic when looking towards the future.

Against Newcastle, Solskjær continued the use of a 4-2-3-1 shape, as well as some squad rotations compared to the prior game against Bournemouth. In defense, keeper David De Gea was guarded by central defenders Phil Jones and Victor Lindelöf, and fullbacks Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia. Midfield saw the continued use of Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matić at the double pivot, 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. with Pogba enjoying his new, more advanced midfield role. For the forward trio, Jesse Lingard was finally rotated from Solskjær’s starting eleven and replaced by Juan Mata. Mata accompanied Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.

On the other hand, Newcastle and the word “optimism” are not going together well this season. While other clubs are actively spending to get stronger, Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has spent very little in the last few transfer windows. This is a key reason for Newcastle’s decline in underlying numbers – they are one of the three worst offenses in the league – which is why they are floating dangerously close to the relegation zone.

Against United, coach Rafa Benítez deployed what is now his team’s standard 5-4-1 shape. Two of the starting central defenders – Ciaran Clark and Federico Fernández – are injured and were replaced by Fabian Schär and Paul Dummett (usually a left back). The pair accompanied captain Jamaal Lascelles in the back three. The wing-back positions featured DeAndre Yedlin and Matt Ritchie (usually a right midfielder). In central midfield, mainstay Mohamed Diamé was once again accompanied by Isaac Hayden, who has been surprisingly starting over Jonjo Shelvey as of late. Christian Atsu and Ayoze Pérez took on the winger roles, while Salomón Rondón played as the lone striker.

Manchester United Solskjaer tacticsUnited’s 4-2-3-1 structure in possession against Newcastle’s 5-4-1 low block defense

Newcastle and United initially trade punches

The first twenty minutes of the first half saw both teams come and go, alternating attacks.

Solskjær’s United tried to dominate their opponent through possession and counterpressing. Central defenders (Jones-Lindelöf) and the double pivot (Matić-Herrera) tried to deliver tense passes that found Pogba, Rashford, and Mata behind Newcastle’s midfield line. Once these attackers received the ball, they would quickly lay it off to the closest teammate, looking to start quick passing combinations that could disorder and overload Newcastle’s tight defense.

For example, if Pogba received the ball on the left, he would lay off the ball to left back Shaw or left winger Martial. Perhaps because of Pogba, United tends to build up and attack more frequently on the left side. If United lost the ball, defenders and midfielders would quickly push up to try to recover it quickly. Central defenders, Lindelöf in particular, would often move forward to anticipate and intercept possible opponent counterattacks.

Meanwhile, Newcastle and Benítez used a textbook low-to-mid block structure, aiming to steal the ball from United before it arrived at the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. Newcastle’s tight 5-4-1 denied United opportunities to create overloads on their preferred left wing. Once Newcastle recovered the ball in that zone, they would almost always send a long ball towards target man Rondón or fast winger Atsu. In the first twenty minutes, this pair sometimes succeeded at winning their individuals duels against United’s defense, creating some of Newcastle’s best chances in the game.

A mobile Mata asserts United’s dominance

With United’s attempts at building through the left often being fruitless, the spotlight turned towards Juan Mata on the right. Mata drifted from his nominal right-wing position into the center, and his mobility and vision were the key that allowed United to dominate by the end of the first half.

With Mata in the center – teaming up with Rashford and Pogba – United was able to create numerical superiorities through the heart of Newcastle’s defense and thus generate their biggest chances of the first half. Mata was also very precise in switching play towards wingers and fullbacks running into spaces, which helped United disorder Newcastle’s defense even further. These actions pushed Newcastle back and – with the help of United’s counterpressing – mostly shut down their counterattack potential. Still, Newcastle’s solid last-ditch defending in their box prevented United from scoring.

Juan Mata

Shelvey’s entrance turns the tables

For the second half, Newcastle opted to use a slightly more aggressive defending block that pressed United’s midfielders more actively. This move forced Pogba and Mata to drop into deeper zones and help their teammates in the buildup, which meant that they were not available to create differences in the final third. United’s attack now struggled more in disordering Newcastle’s defense and creating chances.

But even then, Benítez quickly realized this change was not enough for Newcastle to dominate. He replaced midfielder Diamé for the more creative Jonjo Shelvey, and his entrance quickly made an impact. Shelvey’s passing was far more effective at breaking United’s defensive lines and launching his teammates – Pérez, Atsu and Rondón – into counterattacks. Newcastle was pushing United back and making it even harder for them to attack.  

United’s substitutes make an impact

Solskjær had to react, so at the 63rd minute he substituted a lackluster Martial and a tired Mata for Alexis Sánchez and Romelu Lukaku. Fortunately for United, these changes had an immediate impact on the game. On the free kick that followed the substitutions, Lukaku took advantage of an error by Newcastle keeper Dúbravka – who failed to catch Rashford’s free kick – and scored United’s first goal.

This goal was both a blessing and curse for United. With the calm provided by that goal, United dialed down on their pressing game a bit, and this gave Shelvey even more time and space to help Newcastle progress. Because of the freedom Solskjær provides to his attackers, United does not have a particularly organized defensive block and transition from attack to defense. This meant that Shelvey could easily make passes behind United’s midfield line and allow the forwards to run directly against United’s defense. To further trap United into their own half, Newcastle pushed their defensive line forward to better counterpress and recover the ball higher up the pitch.

However, United had the firepower to punish Newcastle’s offensive risks. At the 80th minute, midfielder Hayden lost the ball in his own half. This allowed Lukaku, Rashford and Sánchez to run at Newcastle’s defense in a counterattack situation, and their superior talent made the difference. Sánchez produced a brilliant through ball past Newcastle’s defense that left Rashford in a one-on-one against keeper Dúbravka. Rashford coolly finished with a low, soft but precise touch to score United’s second goal.

Benítez tried one final attempt to react by substituting central defender Schär with forward Yoshinori Muto at the 81st minute. This made Newcastle switch back to their more traditional 4-4-2 shape and allowed them to be more offensive and direct. Shelvey kept leading his team’s buildup, while left wing-back Ritchie produced an avalanche of crosses into United’s box in the final minutes. However, United defenders cleared most of the danger, preventing Muto and Rondón from having good shooting opportunities.


After a relatively smoother ride in the previous three games, United and Solskjaer had to overcome more problems against a well-organized Newcastle. They controlled the first half well, but their opponent’s more aggressive defending in the second half showed that United’s possession and pressing game still needs more development. Furthermore, Newcastle (in particular Shelvey) also showed that United’s defense is also a work in progress in terms of compactness and organization. Despite the problems in controlling the second half, United overall created better chances than Newcastle and was more effective at finishing them, which explains their victory. However, it is hard not to wonder what will happen once United faces top-half opposition who is better able to exploit their weaknesses.

Newcastle fans are looking at the same picture every week. Tactically speaking, they are a very competent and well-drilled defensive side, even though their attacking mechanisms are a bit too direct and simple. Thanks to Benítez’s tactics board and game management, they are often able to exploit opposition weaknesses. However, it feels as if the team does not quite have the offensive firepower to fully take advantage of the tactical advantages they create. There might be small things that Benítez could improve (can Newcastle really afford not starting Shelvey right now?), but overall, it feels as if fans’ desperation over the lack of investment is justified.

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José Pérez (31) writes and talks about anything football-related: players, tactics, analytics, the relationship between football and society. Whenever he is not working on high-power lasers, he tries to keep up with all big five European leagues, but focuses particularly on La Liga. Outside of Between the Posts, you can find him arguing with people and posting analyses on Twitter or answering questions on Quora. [ View all posts ]


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