If defeat to Blackburn Rovers on Saturday could be dismissed as an anomaly for Manchester United, then what to say about the latest aberration from Sir Alex Ferguson's team last night? What started as an embarrassment is beginning to look like a slump.
Before last night it was 10 years since a Newcastle team had beaten Manchester United, back in the days when Alan Shearer could get under Roy Keane's skin by mentioning his new goatee beard. Last night Ferguson's team simply went quietly; far too quietly for the liking of their manager.
With 15 minutes left Ferguson substituted Wayne Rooney and there was a sharp intake of breath as the stadium waited to see how he would react. In the event, the striker, re-instated to the team after being controversially dropped for the Blackburn game, reached out to clasp Ferguson's hand. But with two straight League defeats to opposition they are expected to beat, United have a problem that even Rooney cannot fix.
The last time they lost two consecutive League games to teams outside the accepted elite of English football was 2005 when they went down to Norwich City and then Everton in April. Against Blackburn, Ferguson had picked a strange, makeshift side but, as Alan Pardew later pointed out, there was "more balance" to last night's United team and they were beaten out of sight.
This was an outstanding Newcastle performance, for whom there were some exceptional performers including Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye, two of the goalscorers. Arguably even more important than those two was the relentless Cheick Tioté who dominated much of the away team's insipid midfield play. In goal, Tim Krul looked unbeatable at times.
For United, the role call of the ineffective, the anonymous and the calamitous was long indeed. It was a brutal occasion for Phil Jones who was partly culpable for Newcastle's first two goals and then got himself so confused in the last minute that he stooped comically low to head a ball and instead kneed it past Anders Lindegaard.
The Danish goalkeeper was in goal in place of David De Gea who was doubtless dropped, because his performance against Blackburn gave Ferguson no choice. Having moved to solve that problem, last night simply presented the manager with a host more. His team were not just mediocre at times, they were far worse than that.
They failed to rise to the challenge of matching Manchester City who, impressive in their win over Liverpool on Tuesday, now have three points on their local rivals. Looking over their shoulder, Tottenham are only three points behind them in third place with a game in hand. "Losing games at this time of year – you don't want it but it can happen," he said.
For Pardew, this was another feather in his cap. His progress in the Newcastle job still defies all predictions but it is inarguable that this team is more than just an early season flash in the pan. The challenge only gets more serious now with the departure of Ba and Tioté to the African Cup of Nations tournament.
It did not start well for Ferguson. There was one hesitant punch by Lindegaard from a Cabaye corner that was not exactly assured and he miscued a kick straight to the opposition.
Newcastle came at Ferguson's team with the same relentless intent as the gale blowing up around St James' Park. Lots of teams talk tough about starting strong against the champions and lots of teams are put firmly back in their box after five minutes. But not Newcastle. They never permitted the away team to settle.
That is not to say that Ferguson's side were completely dominated. They passed the ball with swiftness in the first half and Dimitar Berbatov struck the post with a header that got past Krul. On a night when the issue of goalkeepers was so pertinent, Krul looked his usual assured self, stretching to pluck the ball away from substitute Javier Hernandez in the second half.
United's best move of the game came down the left from Patrice Evra, twice involved, Park Ji-sung and then Ryan Giggs who slipped the ball into Rooney. With a sight of goal he hesitated and miscontrolled and the moment was lost.
Ba had a good shout from a penalty on 25 minutes when Rio Ferdinand's clumsy challenge on him in the area went unrewarded. Ferdinand had struggled with both Shola Ameobi and Ba in the first half – any defender would have done – and when the Newcastle goal came it did not look good for either of the visitors' centre-halves.
Krul struck a long ball straight down the middle of the pitch. Jones was out-jumped by the older Ameobi brother and Ba hooked the loose ball over Lindegaard before Ferdinand had time to react. It was embarrassingly simple.
There was not too much about United as they departed at half-time that suggested they were about to spark into life. During breaks in play, Giggs – one of the better performers – did his best to cajole them and encourage but there were hands on hips and blank stares. When the second goal came they looked desolate.
That was curled in from the right boot of Cabaye, a lovely lofted shot that dipped inside the top-right corner of Lindegaard's goal, struck the underside of the bar and went in. The free-kick had been gifted to Newcastle by Jones who having seen Ba accelerate straight past him decided that his only option was to drag the striker over lest he pose an even greater threat.
United almost forced their way back in just before the hour when Rooney's shot beat Krul but was kicked off the line by Danny Simpson. It was his second decent chance of the night and his substitution was telling. It told Rooney what Ferguson thought of his performance. Jones own goal made it even worse, although by then the game was already up for Ferguson's team.
Man of the match Tioté.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee H Webb (South Yorkshire).
Attendance 52,299.Reuse content