NEWCASTLE, England — Three quick thoughts from Manchester United’s shock 1-0 defeat to Newcastle at St. James’ Park on Sunday.
1. Manchester United slip up again
Manchester United are second in the Premier League. Someone should probably do a tour of the 18 clubs below them and give them all a stern talking to, because it says much more about the rest of the division than it does about United.
They are still there despite this 1-0 defeat to an excellent and dogged Newcastle, the only goal coming in the second-half from Matt Ritchie. As sound as the home side were, Jose Mourinho’s men were awful, and they won’t stay in that position for long if they keep up this level of performance.
This was a victory that will mean a little more to Rafa Benitez than most. At the final whistle Benitez lingered on the pitch, thanking the home fans and soaking up their acclaim. And who can blame him?
The early stages were broadly scrappy, with Newcastle fashioning slightly better chances, Kenedy and Jonjo Shelvey stinging the palms of David De Gea. United had plenty of the ball but their work in the final third was disjointed, the final pass often going awry as Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez grasped for inspiration.
But Anthony Martial had the clearest chance of the half, ten minutes before the break: Nemanja Matic did a passable impersonation of Kevin de Bruyne with a beautifully threaded pass through the Newcastle defence, but debutant keeper Martin Dubravka stayed solid and saved Martial’s shot.
Newcastle were denied a clear penalty just before half-time when Chris Smalling took down Dwight Gayle right in the corner of the area, prompting everyone not in red to howl injustice. On the touchline, Benitez just laughed at the unfairness of a cruel universe.
United had a goal disallowed at the start of the second-half, a push ruling out Romelu Lukaku’s header. But it was Newcastle who took the lead with 25 minutes left: Florian Lejeune nodded down a free kick (awarded after Smalling dived) from deep, it fell to Ritchie in an utterly absurd amount of space in the box, and he buried the shot.
Mourinho made changes to strengthen his midfield, and United almost broke through with a goalmouth scramble that Dubravka — who on this evidence might have solved Newcastle’s goalkeeping uncertainty — somehow kept out.
United attacked until the end, but couldn’t break through. As the final whistle went, 50,000 Geordies screamed with joy. For a moment, it felt like the mid-1990s in St. James’ Park.
2. Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic fail to convince in poor United midfield
Signing Alexis Sanchez was something of a no-brainer for Manchester United. Even considering the cost, it would be foolish to pass up a player of his quality. But the point remains that a left-sided forward was not the area of the team that needed the most attention in the January transfer window.
Mourinho started this game with Jesse Lingard in a slightly deeper role than usual, to form a midfield three with Pogba and Matic. The point was presumably to get the best from the former, but in some ways it highlighted the paucity of options available to do that: that is not where Lingard does his best work, and it was notable on a few occasions how they were struggling in midfield.
It didn’t help that Pogba was quiet, possibly carrying an injury — he left the prematch warm-up before everyone else, and was withdrawn immediately after Newcastle’s goal.
But the main problem was Matic, who aside from that delicious pass to Martial in the first-half, was terrible. Another pass — this one five yards, theoretically to Antonio Valencia, that instead bobbled out for a throw — was more representative of his day.
At one point in the second-half Phil Jones screamed at someone in midfield — Lingard, Matic, it was difficult to tell exactly — for failing to track runners, leaving the defence exposed. Even from 50 yards away, you could clearly see the violent shades of puce the defender’s face turned.
Matic’s role is arguably the most crucial in this United team, because a 4-3-3 gets the best from Pogba, Lukaku and probably Sanchez too. But for it to work they need a fully competent defensive midfielder. But after a decent start to his time at Old Trafford, Matic is not doing that now.
Until United solve their problems in midfield, any hopes of catching Manchester City next season seem unlikely.
3. Jose Mourinho beaten by old adversary Rafa Benitez
It is not a startling revelation that Mourinho and Benitez do not always get on. The former has never met a sly insult that he didn’t like, if it can be directed at a rival, and Benitez has been on the receiving end of both.
The two have both managed Inter, Real Madrid and Chelsea, and Mourinho has never been shy of reminding everyone about his superior record at all three.
Before this game Benitez had only won one Premier League game against Mourinho, but it will always stick in the United manager’s craw that he did get the better of him in those two Champions League semifinals, back when it felt like Chelsea and Liverpool played each other every week.
This week Benitez played down the rivalry a little, in particular the “mind games” that are often mentioned between the two.
“If you say something and the other manager says something and you win the game, the assumption is that you are winning the mind games. No, sometimes your team is better or the other is better and that is it.
“Even making mistakes or losing the mind games, you can win the game. It is like this.”
Even with that in mind, you suspect this win tasted all the sweeter for Newcastle’s manager.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.