After a disappointing defeat to Liverpool before the New Year, spirits were slightly dampened and many fans would have been happy with a draw against the reigning Premier League champions. However, on a cold, blustery Wednesday night at St James’ Park, it was Newcastle that warmed to the task and blew away Manchester United in a thoroughly deserved 3-0 victory.
Alan Pardew changed the starting line up from the defeat against Liverpool and started Davide Santon at left back and moved Ryan Taylor out to the right wing, dropping Gabriel Obertan in the process. Shola Ameobi was brought back into the starting line up at the expense of Haris Vuckic, which saw Newcastle line up in Pardew’s favoured 4-4-2 formation. It signalled the intention of attacking Manchester United, rather than the cautious 4-4-1-1 against Liverpool and in the end, it proved to be the right tactic to take.
Newcastle’s defence stay strong
For the first time this season, Manchester United failed to score in a Premier League game and it was a testament to the Newcastle defence, as they limited Manchester United to only 6 shots (3 on target) in the whole match – on average this season, Manchester United have attempted 17 shots on goal.
Since Steven Taylor’s injury, James Perch has admirably stepped in as a temporary replacement, but lacked the presence of a ‘proper’ central defender. Since making his return against Bolton on Boxing Day, Mike Williamson has helped to provide support to Coloccini in doing the dirty work – blocking and aerial challenges (something alluded to my season preview) and last night he showed that he was good enough to step into Steven Taylor’s boots.
With a good ball retention rate, 73% of his passes found a fellow Newcastle team mate, but more impressively he won all 6 of his ground duels, all 4 aerial duels and both tackles – also making 5 clearances in the process.
The whole defence played well and Newcastle restricted Manchester United to only a few attempts on goal – with the majority from outside of the box. Ferguson’s team attempted 24 crosses from open play, but only 3 were successful. Newcastle effectively clearing their lines with Coloccini making the most clearances (8). Williamson, Simpson (both 5) and Santon (2) ably assisting the Newcastle captain in keeping danger away from Tim Krul’s goal.
Birthday boy Danny Simpson blocked Wayne Rooney’s shot off the line and compounded a poor night for the United forward, as Coloccini and Williamson successfully marked him out of the game.
Although Demba Ba was awarded man of the match, Cheick Tiote would have been a worthy recipient of the award. In one of his best performances in a Newcastle shirt, he showed exactly why teams like Chelsea and Manchester United are rumoured to be after him.
He had the most touches of the ball from any other Newcastle player (70 touches, in comparison with Cabaye, who only had 37) and also had the best pass completion rate (77%) – attempting and completing the most passes from any other outfield Newcastle player (34 / 44). Not confined to the centre of midfield, he roamed across the pitch as shown by his passing heatmap below.
His tenacity and fight to regain possession of the ball was evident last night, as he regained possession on 12 occasions – 8 in his own defensive third and overall, more than any other Newcastle player on the night. He also attempted and won 10 out of 21 ground duels – surprisingly more than the Manchester United midfield central pairing of Giggs and Carrick put together (8 out of 18). With the older pairing of Giggs and Carrick, Manchester United wanted to slow the pace down to their tempo, however the athleticism and movement of Tiote and Cabaye meant that both Manchester United midfielders were harried whenever they were in possession.
Demba and Shola
In light of Manchester United missing their strongest defender in Nemanja Vidic, Pardew opted to play Shola Ameobi alongside Demba Ba. With the two big strikers up top, Pardew also dropped Obertan with Ryan Taylor playing on the right wing, allowing Taylor to play on his stronger side, hoping that his crosses would trouble the Manchester United defence.
Ba was paired up against Rio Ferdinand and found it difficult to compete against the Sengalese striker. Around the half hour mark, Ba had a dubious penalty decision waved away, as video replays suggested that Ferdinand clumsily tangled with Ba in the box and was unlucky not to be awarded the penalty.
Minutes later, a long ball from Tim Krul was flicked on by Shola Ameobi and Ferdinand failed to close to Ba, who spun and volleyed the ball into the corner of the net.
Ameobi was paired up against Phil Jones and used his experience and extra height to his advantage. Jones couldn’t compete with Ameobi in the air and lost all but one of his five aerial duels with the Newcastle striker – including the aerial challenge that led to the first goal for Demba Ba. Jones also brought down Demba Ba outside of the box, which Cabaye took in spectacular fashion. And to top it off, Jones scored an own goal after misjudging the flight of a long ball from Tim Krul, which he should have perhaps kicked away, rather than to try and header clear. A day that he will want to forget.
Overall, both Newcastle strikers played well, as they caused problems to the Manchester United defence. Ameobi and Ba made 34 ground duels between them, nearly making up a third of Newcastle’s total – emphasising the importance of pushing up high against the opposition to stop them playing at their pace.
Although Manchester United dominated possession (40% v 60%) and out passed Newcastle (217 v 383 successful passes), but Newcastle’s more direct approach proved to be more effective, as Newcastle created more chances (7 v 4), attempted more shots on goal (10 v 6) and essentially, score more goals than Manchester United.
Newcastle were perhaps too cautious against Liverpool on Friday and showed them too much respect, by playing an extra man in midfield – but Wednesday night was a more positive approach, going for two men up top and harassing from the front as well
The result leaves Newcastle in 7th place with 33 points and only a point behind Liverpool in 6th place – 8 points better off compared to last year. More breathing space has been created with a 4 point gap between Newcastle and 8th place Stoke City.
With a home tie against Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup up next, it’s a pleasant diversion in the hope that Newcastle could go on a decent cup run.
With Demba Ba and Cheick Tiote now departing off to the African Nations – it places extra pressure on Ameobi, Best and Ben Arfa to step up and fill Demba’s large boots. Maybe try and introduce some strawberry syrup into their diet?