Friday 19 January 2018

Deafening silence descends on United's theatre of nightmares

Manchester United 0 Newcastle 1

Nani jumps the tackle of Newcastle’s Cheik Ismael Tiote during the Premier League game at Old Trafford yesterday. Photo: Richard Heathcote
Nani jumps the tackle of Newcastle’s Cheik Ismael Tiote during the Premier League game at Old Trafford yesterday. Photo: Richard Heathcote

Paul Wilson

Manchester United are going from bad to worse. After the first home defeat by Everton for 21 years came the first capitulation to Newcastle United in 41. Frank O'Farrell was the home manager the last time the Magpies enjoyed success here in the league, Alan Pardew was 10 years old, Nelson Mandela just eight years into his prison sentence, Ryan Giggs not even born. This is not the first time Manchester United have lost Premier League games back to back without scoring, it did happen under Alex Ferguson, but the worry for David Moyes is that his side have lost a third of their league games to date and Old Trafford has lost almost all of its capacity to intimidate.

A combination of the midweek defeat and the absence of the suspended Wayne Rooney produced a flat Manchester United performance and an atmosphere that was even more leaden. Tumbleweed would not have come as a complete surprise in a first 40 minutes during which the only noise from the crowd was courtesy of Newcastle fans commenting drily on the lack of volume being generated by the home support. Even with Robin van Persie back from injury there was little happening on the pitch to get excited about.

Adnan Januzaj produced some elegant touches, but the home side's attacks were disjointed and sporadic, a midfield pairing of Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley not really providing the drive Old Trafford has come to expect.

Newcastle were arguably the better team in the first half, playing within themselves but with a neatness and precision their opponents often lacked. The visitors could have turned round in front but for a smart save from David de Gea to deny Mathieu Debuchy in added time, after Loic Remy had caught Patrice Evra napping with a peach of a pass behind the right back.

That was just about the first time either goalkeeper had been seriously called into action, though Javier Hernandez might have had a penalty a couple of minutes earlier when Fabricio Coloccini appeared to catch his leg.

That was about it for first half action, though thankfully the tempo and the temperature both began to rise after the interval. Tim Krul was immediately required to make a save from Hernandez from Van Persie's searching diagonal ball, then Evra's header at a set piece was kept out by Vurnon Anita at the far post, possibly with the surreptitious use of an arm.

"It's not for me to say whether it was a penalty or not but his hand definitely stopped the ball going in," Moyes said. If Manchester United were upset about that they were given more to worry about after an hour when Newcastle took the lead. There was nothing streaky or fortuitous about Yohan Cabaye's goal, beyond the fact that Evra's attempted clearance hit an opponent and bounced behind him. The excellent Moussa Sissoko escaped into space down the right, leaving Evra trailing then looking up to cut back for Cabaye, whose shot from near the penalty spot beat Nemanja Vidic and De Gea's attempts to block it.

Moyes' response was to replace Cleverley and Nani with Anderson and Wilfried Zaha, quite properly identifying midfield as a problem though showing more faith than many present in the substitutes he hoped would fix it. For good measure he sent on Antonio Valencia as well, replacing Rafael with one of his selection of wingers on the bench, though with Hatem ben Arfa also introduced in the second half Newcastle continued to pass the ball around confidently, with Cheik Tiote more tenacious than any of the home players in winning it back when lost. Newcastle were worth their win in other words, even though Manchester United could have had a penalty or two and Van Persie was correctly ruled offside when he thought he had headed an equaliser.

Moyes' frustration surfaced just before the final whistle when he tangled with Newcastle players in an attempt to get a throw taken quickly, and the reason he was so annoyed was graphically demonstrated in stoppage time, when Anderson won the ball in his own half from a Ben Arfa anxious to keep hold of it and waste time, then promptly gave it away again.

Moyes remains defiant, but United cannot win the title from here. There appears to be work to be done just to stay in the top half of the table, though Rooney's return should provide a boost. "Events worked against David a little bit with Rooney being out," Pardew said. "That helped us, but it was still a magnificent performance from our players. We set out to play a little differently today, to retain the ball better, because when you are up against the top sides you can't keep turning it over. I was really pleased with the way that worked out, because this is always a difficult place to come to. You have to concentrate the whole time. Last season we were 3-2 up with nine minutes to go, but a couple of errors still cost us."

That was the old United though. There has been no sign, in either of the last two defeats, that the version with Moyes at the helm can still do the cavalry charge or whip the crowd into a frenzy. Old Trafford did not even register its disapproval with the result. The home fans just watched in silence then went home. Moyes might see that as a sign of patience, but as they used to say in old Westerns: "There's something not right. It's too quiet."

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