Newcastle United – Manchester United: Troublesome Toons Resist Rangnick’s Reds (1-1)
Chasing a spot in the top four, Manchester United fought for all three points against their relegation threatened hosts. In the end, they were lucky to depart St James’ Park with one. Careless on both sides of the ball, Ralf Rangnick’s men showed a difference, or even a few, in formation will only go so far to solve their problems.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
At a time when billions across the globe are grateful for the gift of life from Jesus Christ, fanatic followers of two of England’s sleeping giants still pray in earnest for the renaissance of their clubs.
Long suffering at the hands of Mike Ashley, Newcastle United have been in the doldrums for the best part of a decade. Often with little more than survival in the top flight to fight for, their campaign has quickly taken a drearily familiar course. New direction from Saudi owners might have kindled hope of transformation in November, but the reality of a dogfight still looms large ahead of the new year.
Hailed the forefather of modern German football, Ralf Rangnick’s mythical status has taken hold at Manchester United. From the illustrious Red Bull model to the eulogies of his disciples, his body of work turned fans into eager acolytes, awaiting with bated breath the revival of a declining institution. A miraculous display of intensity and organization in a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace has fortified faith in the new leadership, but only with more time can one be sure these encouraging signs will not fade.
Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe has little to show for two months of labor and will surely call for fresh blood in the winter transfer window. In the meantime, he hoped making six alterations to the side that lost 4-0 to Manchester City could spark a reaction. Among those, the mercurial Allan Saint-Maximin came back into the fold as a left winger while Jonjo Shelvey sat at the base of the midfield.
Overseeing a nervous victory at Norwich City last time out, Rangnick had good reason to rotate the lineup. Indeed, the German brought back two men into the starting eleven. Raphaël Varane made his first start in the Premier League for nearly two months. He replaced Victor Lindelöf, who had caught COVID-19. Further afield, Jadon Sancho dropped to the bench, making way for Mason Greenwood.
Off the back of fixtures against Liverpool and Manchester City, Newcastle are in the habit of facing far more gifted outfits. Here, Howe depended on a similar strategy from those two games. His men mainly sat off in a low block, but not the 4-4-2 system that one might expect with this starting eleven.
Joelinton vs Manchester United— James (@189NlNE) December 28, 2021
Joelinton: a man revitalized?
Joelinton has often operated as a striker since his move in 2019 to Tyneside, but he has found a new role under Howe. Initially thought of as a second striker, he has played as an eight for the last few weeks. Mixing physique and a high work rate with an ability to shield the ball in tight spaces, the Brazilian has let his manager deploy a 4-5-1 setup without losing the discipline of a usual midfielder.
Saint-Maximin the savior
Guilty of starting sluggishly at Norwich, the Mancunians failed to learn their lesson here. From a throw in, Varane stole the ball but then pivoted into traffic, conceding the play to Sean Longstaff. The midfielder broke forward, slipping in Saint-Maximin to his left at pace. His teammate stepped inside Diogo Dalot, weaved away from Harry Maguire, and fired a strike at the goal. Rooted to the spot, David de Gea was a mere spectator, observing the ball sail into the net to hand the hosts the lead.
To the left of Joelinton, the goal scorer was another pivotal figure on the evening. Whether he features as a central forward or on either flank, Saint-Maximin can offer a destructive solo threat on the break. His speed, flair, and liveliness in 1-on-1 duels are a known menace. But to add to his strong dribbling that has become more efficient over time, his decision making in the final third has got better as well. His outstanding display owed much not only to his attributes but also to the structure of the visitors.
12th minute: Joelinton intercepts a pass from Fred, initiating a transition to his left. Saint-Maximin breaks into the room behind Dalot, shimmying away from Fred before switching play to Ryan Fraser.
Though the fullbacks mainly hold the width in Manchester United’s system, different profiles then arose on the flanks. Alex Telles operated deeper, offering his usual underlapping runs through the channel to attack the goal. On the other hand, progressions were more direct and broader from the right, where Dalot moved high onto the last line in the opening stages of the game to deliver crosses.
His high positioning gave Saint-Maximin ample room to break down the flank, giving way to Newcastle’s main avenue of attack in the first half. The intent to counterpress through a compact central block was apparent, but the execution was not optimal. A quarter of an hour into the game, Rashford began to stay wider while Dalot was deeper, but errors still left the side prone to transitions.
(Mis)controlling the chaos
Though attention has centered on what Rangnick will bring to Old Trafford off the ball, his principles with it are equally central to his model. Lining up his men in a 4-2-2-2 shape, he prefers that the front block of six is narrow. To this end, the two tens behind the front two moved inward to the halfspaces.
An asymmetrical division of roles arose between these two men. Bruno Fernandes would come deeper to support the play from the left side of the attack, roaming more spaciously from the inside channel. Marcus Rashford then stayed higher on the right, tending to drift further inward in combination play.
From time to time, aggressive, vertical play came to fruition. For instance, overloading the left along with a 1-1 split between the double pivot let Rangnick’s men break the lines to reach the final third. But against a deep block, technical and positional errors severely harmed their prospects of creating chances before the break. Sorely lacking harmony, the guests were in dire need of improvement.
Manchester United’s 4-2-2-2 offensive structure
Insufficient inspiration, mandatory motivation
It was no shock that Rangnick made a double substitution before the restart. Greenwood came off for Edinson Cavani, who joined Ronaldo in the front two. A second change saw Sancho enter the fray in place of Fred. Rashford swapped to the left flank while McTominay was the sole sitting midfielder. Hence, Fernandes did not drop into the double pivot, roaming ahead of the six in a 4-1-3-2 system.
Rangnick: "Second half we changed from 4-2-2-2 into a 4-1-3-2, the intention was to play on the wing, it was the way we prepared our equaliser. We had another two opportunities playing the ball behind their back four. Edinson could have scored another one." #MUFC (1/2)— Laurie Whitwell (@lauriewhitwell) December 27, 2021
Shifting more bodies to the flanks, Rangnick sought solutions from out wide. Eventually, one arrived. Dalot drilled a cutback to the edge of the penalty area where Cavani, holding his run, lurked free to punish Newcastle. Jamal Lascelles blocked his first effort, but the striker preserved, hacking at the ball to force it through three black and white shirts on the line. All square on 71 minutes.
Rangnick’s final change saw Nemanja Matić come on to take the sting out of the game. The veteran often dropped to form a back three as part of a slower rhythm of ball circulation. From here, he looked to break the lines and find one of the four central attackers inside a pair of high and wide fullbacks.
But Howe’s men did not collapse. Saint-Maximin stood in for Callum Wilson upfront, doing damage on the left. His teammates picked up the slack. Jacob Murphy hit the post, and Miguel Almirón drew a stunning save from David de Gea. If not for his inspired form, Newcastle might have taken a victory.
Newcastle put up a valiant effort to take a point from this clash. Above all, the showings of Joelinton and Saint-Maximin were central to their strategy, which will surely be less in demand against mid-table outfits over their upcoming fixtures. However, injuries to the Frenchman and Wilson indicate how thin Howe’s options are at this stage. Already battling the odds with this current roster, clever recruitment next month seems all the more crucial to their hopes of staying in the top flight.
Dropping points in the league for the first time under Rangnick, Manchester United’s bounce has appeared to wear off. Control has been a recurrent motif in the new manager’s interviews, yet his men were bereft of it for stretches of this game. The fundaments of their work off the ball must develop, while 69% of possession counts for little if the basics of offering angles and weight of pass are absent. Whatever role Rangnick fills next year, he requires buy-in from his players to make sustained change.
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