At half-time on Saturday evening, United were staring at another home defeat straight in the face. Trailing by two goals against an energised Newcastle side, Jose Mourinho made a string of unconventional substitutions to try and save his side, and maybe his job. Bordering on chaos, somehow it worked and in turn, he may have stumbled across his best-attacking solution.
Return to the good old days
Mourinho once more made changes in his attack to start the game. Alexis Sanchez this time sitting out with Anthony Martial returning to the left and Marcus Rashford moving to the right. Mourinho was impressed with Martial’s cameo versus Valencia on Tuesday evening, helping his cause for selection.
The first half display at Old Trafford was, however, as bad as ever. Conceding twice in 10 minutes to a Newcastle side who had only managed four goals in their previous seven games. Having already dragged off Eric Bailly for Juan Mata, Mourinho had little choice but to make a change at half-time. However, I would guess that very few expected to see Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic playing quite as deep as they were in the second half. It worked a treat, Pogba was outstanding and dragged his team forward at every opportunity. Not quite Roy Keane in Turin, but very close.
However, it was the eventual forward line of Martial, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez which finally gave United attacking intent. Rashford was poor once again on the right, quite rightly substituted for Sanchez. The switch also allowed the already-roaming Juan Mata to play more central. However, or for whatever reason, the changes came about is, for now, irrelevant. The outcome was something not seen at Old Trafford for some time. In fact, it was as close to the Fergie United as there has been since his retirement.
What was so good about the front three?
With Mata and Pogba dictating play from different ends of the pitch, United suddenly found the control they missed for weeks. The normally isolated Martial, seemed to receive more of the ball in one half than he has for the entirety of the season so far. His confidence grew with every jinking run and he was suddenly popping up in all areas. Most importantly, he was positively influencing United’s attacks. No more so than brilliantly linking up with Pogba to hammer United level. Not to forget him being dragged down for Mata’s free kick too.
Looking at Martial’s heat map, the amount of ball he had really stands out. It is also no coincidence that against Young Boys, he got a similar amount of the ball, also scored, and also performed strongly.
When comparing this to the Brighton game, where he was dragged off after an hour, he managed well under half the amount of touches.
But it was where the Frenchman was picking the ball up that is key. Against Brighton, he spent most of his time on the halfway line. On Saturday, he was regularly receiving the ball deep in the Newcastle half, giving him numerous one on one situations against DeAndre Yedlin. If United continue to give Martial plenty of the ball, his confidence will only grow and could see him become one of the most feared wingers in the league.
Martial was only one piece of the jigsaw, however. Lukaku has been poor in recent weeks and was again for the most part on Saturday. At least in the second half, he started to show more outside of the penalty area. This was crucial in the improvement United made in the last 20 minutes. The icing on the cake was the arrival of the energetic Sanchez, who may have given Mourinho his best solution to the problematic wide right area.
Going back to Saturdays heat maps, Martial’s shows how well he kept the width on the left, constantly linking up with Luke Shaw. Compare this to Sanchez for his cameo, the Chilean roamed much more, regularly moving inside. This is not unusual for Sanchez, he does the same playing on the left with his desire to get in the box not going unnoticed. The problem doing so from the left is he leaves that left flank exposed but also overcrowds the central areas.
The difference coming inside from the right is all down the Lukaku’s movement. When on form and full of running, the Belgian naturally drifts more out to the right-hand side. Looking at his heat map against Newcastle, this is evident. He spends very little time on the left side. This allows Sanchez to drift inside to fill the space left by Lukaku and continue to provide United a threat in the box. It was no surprise that United’s winner came from Sanchez as he was visibly growing in confidence and enjoying more space and freedom.
Time to settle on starting line-up
If the second half on Saturday wasn’t enough to make Mourinho finally settle on a front four then nothing will. In recent weeks, Mourinho has made changes every week seemingly trying to flush out the problem. But at some stage, he needs to decide who will take this club forward this season. Too many players rely on confidence and form to produce their best for him not to. In those final 20 minutes, Martial looked like he was back to his best, Lukaku seemed to get his energy and hunger back and Sanchez resembled the Sanchez who was so good at Arsenal. Unfortunately, the timing couldn’t be worse with trips to Chelsea, Juventus, and City to come in the next month. Mourinho is likely to make changes to satisfy his need to ‘not get beat first’.
But the fact remains, to come back from two goals down after the performances of the past few weeks, shows this side is fighting for something. Whether that be the manager, club or supporters. The next few weeks will determine if this is the turn around of United’s season or just a papering over of the biggest cracks the club has seen for some time.