The small technical area at Old Trafford has become a prison for David Moyes. Though he stood there late in this game, exhorting his players to press forward and recover some respectability from another losing situation, he was howling at the wind. Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha looked up at him, seemed to hear him and to pick up their feet. But they were as powerless as he was to stem the collapse of what seems to be every aspect of Manchester United’s former invincibility.
The aftermath of defeat brought a litany of miserable consequences, not least Newcastle manager Alan Pardew’s discussion of “poor old United and David.” But most dismal of all was the realisation that these players –Sir Alex Ferguson’s players, no less – could not summon so much as one threat to the visiting team after they had fallen behind.
There were 30 minutes to play when Yohan Cabaye scored, but in response there was next to nothing. It was the sight of Robin van Persie, hoisting up a free kick from 30 yards in the 91st minute, when United needed his menace in front of goal, which encapsulated the sense of a team and a manager fumbling around for a method.
Moyes said he can turn things around for a team who may be 15 points adrift of leaders Arsenal by tonight “because of the players and because I am working with the champions”. But the fundamental explanation of the outcome was that Newcastle possessed the four best players on the field – Cabaye, Mathieu Debuchy, Cheick Tioté and Moussa Sissoko.
United did suffer misfortune. Vurnon Anita plainly handled a deflected Patrice Evra header away on the line, from in front of Tim Krul’s left post in the second half. Sissoko took a lucky break to escape from Evra down Newcastle’s right and level for Cabaye to score with a deflected shot.
But these were relatively small details in the bigger picture of Moyes inheriting a squad which is not good enough and which he cannot inspire to surpass themselves. Two of the three substitutes he threw on – Anderson and Zaha – are players we know he does not consider to be good enough.
You could be forgiven for thinking that he was making a statement by sending them on. Almost to a man, his team were dismal.
United’s supporters seem to acknowledge the size of his inheritance. Many are too steeped in the legend of Ferguson’s dark early days to round on his successor, which is why, after the initial muffled boos had dissipated, a chorus of applause broke out as the team departed.
But there is a clear and present danger of a freefall and a squad which falls apart. The manager’s disclosure that Shinji Kagawa could not play because he had eaten too much “and had his stomach pumped” was the afternoon’s most bizarre disclosures.
Newcastle required moments of excellent defending from Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson, who made two fine interceptions as Januzaj threatened in the first half. Their strategy of controlling possession in midfield, by adding Anita, was borne of Pardew’s conviction that to beat major sides they need to hold onto the ball. It wasn’t a virtuoso Newcastle display – and didn’t need to be – but Cabaye and Tioté provided a presence and pace on the counter-attack that United lacked.
Newcastle’s extra man also drew Van Persie deep into midfield and away from danger. Newcastle refused to let United dictate. And they also had what Pardew described as “the psychology in the changing room to win.”
A feeble penalty claim, when Javier Hernandez made maximum dramatic capital out of minimal contact from Coloccini, encapsulated United’s first half. They trooped in with David De Gea to thank for parity after Evra’s ponderous reaction to Loïc Rémy ’s sweet 40-yard pass allowed Debuchy to nip in behind him and shoot.
And though United began the second half with far greater intent – Van Persie unravelling a 50-yard pass which a generally anonymous Hernandez couldn’t convert – the visitors looked more capable of a goal.
The last time Newcastle won here, Stewart Barraclough and John Tudor scored their goals – one week before that legendary FA Cup tie in which they lost to Hereford United at Edgar Street, 41 years ago. The state of the home side seems to belong in the monochrome era, too.
Manchester United (4-4-2): De Gea; Rafael (Valencia, 72), Evans, Vidic, Evra; Januzaj, Jones, Cleverley (Anderson, 69) Nani (Zaha, 68); Hernandez, Van Persie.
Newcastle United (4-3-3): Krul; Debuchy (Yanga-Mbiwa, 83), Williamson, Coloccini, Santon; Anita, Tioté, Cabaye (Ameobi, 78); Sissoko, Rémy, Gouffran (Ben Arfa, 57).
Referee: Andre Marriner
Man of the match: Cabaye (Newcastle)
Match rating: 6/10