With Manchester United lying third in the EPL after just six games, there should not be any talk of a crisis at the club prior to their tricky trip to Newcastle this weekend. However, with a perceived problem in midfield and definite defensive problems, just how good this Manchester United team is continues to be questioned. What, therefore, will be the key to the Red Devils getting a victory in the northeast of England?
That this is another big test for United is not in doubt. St James’ Park (or the Sports Direct Arena, as it is now named) has been the scene for many a troubling night for the team from Manchester. Remember Phillippe Albert’s chip in the 5-0 rout in 1996? Roy Keane attempting to floor Alan Shearer? More recently, there was last January’s 3-0 victory for Newcastle.
That night, the Magpies’ vibrant, bustling midfield trampled over the Reds, and the red-hot partnership of Ba and Cisse burnt a hole through their defence with ease, those lost points eventually spelling second place in the EPL final reckoning. In fact, it could be said that the stubborn “toon army” resistance at Old Trafford last season, resulting in a 1-1 scoreline, also played an important part in the crowning of Manchester City as champions.
Alan Pardew and Alex Ferguson will both have those games fresh in their minds as they prepare to do battle on Sunday afternoon. Pardew will be hoping that a recently returning Cheick Tiote and stuttering Yohan Cabaye can replicate the stunning form they displayed in last season’s encounter. Ferguson, meanwhile, will be hoping that game time for the trio of Fletcher, Anderson and Cleverley in the Champions League and a midweek rest for the pass-master, Paul Scholes, will strengthen his midfield hand, as midfield, once again, will surely be a key.
It is not the only conundrum for United, though.
Robin van Persie has become extremely important—as a player of his calibre would do—and his wonderful link-up play with Wayne Rooney on Tuesday night against FC Cluj, coupled with Javier Hernandez’s sticky run of form will probably see one area of the field resolved, with Sir Alex going with two upfront, Rooney in the deeper position.
As for the rest of the team, does he return to wingers, leaving a more open midfield? Ex-player Gary Neville commented on last weekend’s defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, claiming that United leaking goals was not just a centre-back problem, but the full-backs were leaving too large of gaps against pacy opponents (a more defensive midfielder could provide further cover). But is Darren Fletcher up to such a test yet?
Just prior to the Ba and Cisse partnership forming, Newcastle still gave the Reds' patchwork back four the run around nine months ago, so will their still-limping defence cope this time? This area of the pitch has been a problem as difficult as the midfield appears to be since early last season—Evra’s loss of form, Rafael’s rashness and the merry-go-round of injuries suffered by all four centre-backs all compounding it.
Yet despite bemoaning the fact that a full-strength back four could not be named for such a long time, the first opportunity to do so was then also undermined by Sir Alex deciding he wasn’t really sure which goalkeeper to trust. It appears, at this moment in time, that Anders Lindegaard is in favour for the rough and tumble of the EPL, following David de Gea’s fumble against Fulham—that notwithstanding de Gea’s wonderful saves in each game he has played.
Newcastle United versus Manchester United this weekend will be a fascinating game to watch—further goals conceded, or another defeat, and the next moves made by Manchester United will be equally fascinating.
As has been the case for over 25 years at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson holds the key.