Football Features

“The power of playmakers” on full display as Man Utd show their steel in comeback win

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:31, 17 October 2020

In a dramatic night of football, Manchester United came from behind to beat Newcastle 1-4 at St. James’ Park.

The worst thing about Manchester United’s defeat to Spurs wasn’t the defeat itself but the manner of their capitulation. After going one-up they conceded a farcical equaliser, a go-ahead goal and they just fell to pieces even before Anthony Martial’s red card.

United were a side lacking in mental strength, and that’s been a trend lately. They’ve not looked a side capable of turning things around when they’re going against them. Were they short of on-pitch leadership? Or off-field? Who could say.

So when they went 1-0 down just two minutes away from Newcastle, you feared the worst for a team already low on confidence and missing Anthony Martial through suspension.

But Manchester United showed something up in the North East. Something they haven’t showed for a while.

They showed heart, and fight, and a will to win that carried them to such success late last season.

There was no great tactical shift from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to turn things around, no magical substitution. His starters simply put their heads down, worked Newcastle out and kept on driving at them.

Of course there were personnel factors that helped United get going. The presence of Scott McTominay added an energy and drive to midfield that just isn’t there when Nemanja Matic plays. McTominay and Fred were forever driving it forward to the “front four.”

Suspensions and rotation meant that Juan Mata started, and when Juan Mata plays well he is an absolutely invaluable reference in attack for United because he is a genuine playmaker. He links with team-mates, makes intelligent passes, selfless runs, he makes it all tick.

Mata works as a sort of sneak peek of what it would be like if one of United’s starting wingers was genuinely creative instead of a striker playing wide (just imagine if they had actually signed Jadon Sancho like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted, eh?) as Marcus Rashford MBE and Mason Greenwood are. Those players are great, for sure, but they’re not playmakers. Not like Sancho, not like Fernandes, not like Mata.

Mata was sensational against Newcastle, working with Bruno Fernandes to find and release Rashford and Daniel James over and over again. With the Spaniard as Robin to his Batman, Bruno Fernandes was able to create a staggering six chances in the game (including one assist). Having Mata’s creativity enables Bruno to become even more creative himself. And in terms of overcoming adversity, Fernandes won and missed a penalty – which could have derailed his evening – but rebounded from that to score the go-ahead goal and assist the final one.

That go-ahead goal was a work of art, a classic Man Utd counterattack that saw sub Donny van de Beek link with Fernandes before Mata released Rashford, who drove into the box before revising it to Fernandes to thunder in a beautiful finish.

Rashford again turned provider for Aaron Wan-Bissaka to thunder home a third, before Fernandes found Rashford late on to make it four. Two assists and a goal for United’s main forward. A superb performance from the young man who is doing such wonders off the field now finally is getting into gear on it – the power of playmakers, eh? Does wonders.

United’s incredible comeback was largely driven by actually having creativity in their front three. What they wouldn’t give to take 5-7 years off Juan Mata; what a player they’d have on their hands then.

But none of the fluid stuff in the second-half would have been possible were it not for their equaliser. Possibly the greatest show of mental strength of the night came from their captain Harry Maguire. A player who has looked a million miles from being ready to play this season, and who saw his defence breached so early today.

Maguire refused to be cowed, however. And he continued to drive United forward and was rewarded for his persistence when he met Juan Mata’s (that guy again!) corner with an impressive header, thumping the ball low into the net to drag his side back into the game.

It was an impressive showing from Maguire, who seems determined to play through his problems. United as a whole played their way through their problems. The were still frailties visible on the break, David de Gea had to made some impressive saves to keep Newcastle to just one, and whilst Dan James has all the endeavour in the world he does seem a tad short on quality. And of course Juan Mata is 32, so won’t be turning in this kind of performance every week (if he can even handle games every week) so United will once again go back to having just one playmaker in the final third which is obviously a problem.

But for now: a 1-4 away win is a 1-4 away win. Manchester United didn’t smash-and-grab their hosts, they fell behind early turned the game around with good, persistent attacking football. They suffered some outrageous fortune with Luke Shaw’s own goal and Bruno Fernandes’ penalty miss, but they retained their focus, showed their mental strength, and fought back with good football to pick up a huge win.

With some massive games on the way, United’s renewed mental resilience is going to be what pleases Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the most – because you best believe they’re going to need it in the monster clashes to come.