Football Features

Rashford and James let rip on Newcastle with the power of early shooting to lift Manchester United up to second

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 21:45, 21 February 2021 | Updated: 20:29, 24 November 2022

In a testing night of football, Manchester United beat Newcastle United 3-1 at Old Trafford.

At first glance the result is extremely comfortable and Manchester United must have coasted to victory but if you actually watched the game you’d know that for the vast majority of the game, the better part of an hour really, The Red Devils struggles against The Magpies.

In fact the difference in the end was down to one major factor: shooting early. Yes obviously individual quality was a big differential as was United’s superior fitness and even their form – the early shooting is what made the difference, because here’s the thing: Manchester United are not really a creative side.

Sure, The Red Devils are impressive. They sit second in the league and are the division’s highest scorers with 53 goals (as of full-time) and have scored three goals on 16 occasions this season; but when you watch them play against organised defences, they really do have no idea how to break them down and create consistent chances.

Part of this is to do with the lack of a genuine attacking structure for most games. United can set-up to play on the break as well as anyone in the league (and that is why they devastated Real Sociedad in the Europa League), but breaking teams down? It’s all a bit haphazard and free-form, relying on great players to conjure moments out of nothing.

And United have enough great players that they managed to fudge together a title challenge despite being nowhere near the level of Manchester City. But that means there are games where they look absolutely useless as they haplessly overdribble, or overhit crosses, and that is mostly what happened against Newcastle as the Magpies organised themselves superbly.

But United made the difference, ultimately, thanks to the power of early shooting.

Manchester United had 15 shots against Newcastle but a lot of them didn’t carry anything like enough threat, because as much as United would conjure space to shoot, they’d wait before taking their shot and allow Karl Darlow to close off angles, or defenders to block off spaces.

This is the problem United often had because besides Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani (neither of whom started today, Cavani didn’t play at all) they don’t have any natural goalscorers in the squad. And when you’re facing a packed defence, and you don’t have a sophisticated structure to your attacks to consistently create chances (as, say, Manchester City do) then you need to shoot early.

When you get a look at goal, you need to hit the ball and hit it well. The more touches you take, the easier things become for defenders. When you shoot early they’re off-balance, the goalkeeper might not be set, and even if you don’t hit it well you could catch them unawares.

United today did exactly that. Marcus Rashford showed some superb dribbling skills to cut in from the left wing and work the ball back onto his right-foot. But he’s done that before and then he takes a touch, and then another touch, and then another touch, and by then the chance is gone. Today, the second he got away from his marker, he absolutely hammered the ball low and hard towards the near-post.

Had he taken his time and shot, there’s no doubt Newcastle would have gotten some blocks in. Just like in the second-half when Nemanja Matic’s square pass was deflected by Bruno Fernandes into Daniel James’ path, the Welsh took one touch to set the ball and then absolutely hammered it to the near-post yet again, and the ball was almost beyond Darlow before he could react.

Had Dan James done what he had usually done, or what Anthony Martial has been doing all season, and take a touch, then the chance vanishes. Shooting early is the easiest way to break sides down because it keeps defences off-balance and means that even half-chances carry a real weight of danger for opponents.

Then when you make a habit of shooting early, defences begin to adjust and close you down faster to stop you getting those looks at goal, which in turn opens up more passing options to team-mates who might be in better positions to score. This allows you to essentially “fake it ’til you make it” with regards to having an offensive structure and system. You start to play more collectively, because the gaps are there, because defences are closing you down quickly, because you’re shooting early.

If Manchester United keep this up, they’ll go far this season.