FeaturedFootballLocal sportNUFC

Man in flat cap unhappy: Team spirit under the microscope as Newcastle beat lethargic Manchester United

2nd December 2023; St James’ Park, Newcastle, England; Premier League Football, Newcastle United versus Manchester United; Manchester United Manager Erik ten Hag (Alamy)

Erik ten Hag was a whippet short of a stereotypical Northerner costume, but the flat cap donning Dutchman cut a frustrated figure as he watched his side fall to Newcastle’s intensity and teamwork.

In contrast, his Manchester United team was lethargic and at times appeared unbothered. In particular, Marcus Rashford was singled out for criticism as he failed to track back frequently, leaving space for the in-form Anthony Gordon and Tino Livramento to drive into.

After the game ten Hag said he would “talk with” Rashford about his form as pundit Ally McCoist questioned the “commitment” of some players.

It was in these wide spaces that Newcastle found much of their joy in the opening 45 minutes. Overlapping runs from Kieran Trippier and Livramento caused problems for the Red Devils who could not deal with the speed and work rate of the home side. Manchester United have not won away against a team in the top nine under ten Hag and it showed.

Joelinton, who celebrated the two-year anniversary of his shift into midfield this week, was imperious in the centre of the pitch breaking up play and hassling any red shirt he laid eyes upon. His engine is seemingly bottomless, meaning his tenacity remains throughout the 90 as a clear marker of the progression of this Newcastle team under Eddie Howe.

Partnering him in the advanced duo of the Toon midfield three was again 17 year old Lewis Miley. The most promising sign of Miley’s development is that he already looks to be a mainstay of this team and has given Howe a real headache when his teammates Sean Longstaff and Joe Willock recover from injury.

Miley’s calmness in possession allowed overlapping runs to develop and he also took up positions in the half space between Diogo Dalot and Luke Shaw which caused issues for the Man U defence as attacks developed.

Off the ball, Newcastle work intelligently and aggressively and perhaps the biggest complement that can be paid to Miley is that he has really bought into Howe’s philosophy.

Once again, an argument for player of the match being Fabian Schar can be had. His ability to progress the ball through the lines of midfield while remaining defensively sound is crucial to the way that Howe sets his team up. He silenced ten Hag’s frontline who offered precious little before Nick Pope’s withdrawal through injury. Even then, he remained resolute and alert, shutting down chances before they materialised and making substitute Rasmus Hojlund look like an invisible man.

While Howe’s side were sharp on the ball and off it, ten Hag’s team have many questions to answer about their lack of intensity after two poor results in one week. The two sides could not be more contrasting in their application of this match, the result being that Newcastle leapfrog Manchester United in the Premier League.

It could well be that examining the collective spirit of Manchester United may begin to unravel the premiership of Ten Hag.