Location: St James’
Early prospects: Difficult
Newcastle return to St James’ for their first game of 2012, facing the daunting prospect of looking for a win against an opposition we have not beaten for over 10 years – Manchester United.
The beating at Anfield was nothing out of the ordinary given our past there, but it did leave a notable bitter taste in the mouth knowing that we can and have played far better than that recently – looking nervy and panicked for most of the 90minutes. Going into this game we have to adopt a far better attitude towards the opposition, whilst remaining honest of our prospects against a significantly superior opposition. Blackburn may have taken three points in their last outing at Old Trafford, but rode their luck substantially against an injury ridden Manchester United side that still amassed a whopping 27 shots and 17 corners. A result should, of course, be far from expected but not impossible with a little luck and plenty professionalism.
Note: Second guessing Alex Ferguson’s team selection is a thankless task – the veteran manager regularly rotating his team both in personnel and position to meet the demands of competing on all fronts. This prediction is done with the best intentions, but also an honest acknowledgement that it is at the mercy of Ferguson’s unpredictable selection policy…
Gabriel Obertan was initially ruled out, but has since been declared fit to face his former club and should continue in the RM slot. Ryan Taylor endured a torrid time against Liverpool after being obviously targeted, resulting in his substitution at half time – it’s expected Alan Pardew will revert back to the Italian with Manchester United’s pace threat from wide areas. With this likely to be Demba Ba’s last league game before leaving for the ACN, it’s a strong possibility that Leon Best will return to partner him to get game time – although staying with the 4411 formation is equally likely.
Manchester Utd have had to endure an injury crisis of late – posting a very inexperienced bench for the match against Blackburn along with Michael Carrick in central defence. Since however, Wayne Rooney has been declared fit for this tie and Sir Alex Ferguson also hoped to have Twitter’s Rio Ferdinand available to bolster his defence. Michael Owen misses the opportunity for another hero’s welcome at St James’ – shame…
Opposition strengths and notable dangers:
Strengths amongst many…
• Ball retention and pressing: Like a number of occasions recently NUFC could have a problem dealing with MUFC’s ball retention – their average 84% pass completion rate and 55% possession being one of the strongest in the league. Newcastle’s fairly frayed 78% pass completion rate against Liverpool give the home side on the day a march and allowed them to control much of the game – mainly down to the pressing of Liverpool’s midfielders. The Red Devils adopt a very similar strategy throughout, but do far better at retaining possession when they regain it.
• Wide play: A very similar problem as was posed in the Liverpool fixture, the wide play of Man Utd is used as a primary method of attack and supplying the front line. Their average of 26 crosses per game is 3rd most of all PL clubs and even without the explosive Ashley Young (ruled out through injury) MUFC have skilful and pacey talent available on the flanks. A particular undoing against Liverpool was our inability to deal with their wide play, being unable to break free of the pressure they built from the flanks – this will again be a primary source of concern.
A final point of note is the unquantifiable problem of the wounded animal that is Manchester United after losing. Blackburn gave the red half of Manchester a bloody nose with their win at Old Trafford on New Year’s day and they will be particularly determined to lose not ground on neighbours City in the title race after their unlikely slip-up.
• More crosses: Very important when playing a 4411 system, absolutely imperative when playing a 442 – the forward line cannot function effectively unless they have delivery from the wide areas, as well as an attacking threat of their own to give the opposition defence something more to worry about. NUFC have been notably lacking this in some recent fixtures (only seven crosses were attempted vs Liverpool – only two of those by wingers) and resort to chipping / punting speculative balls straight to the forward line. This needs correcting as a priority.
• Pass the ball properly…: NUFC have bettered a pass completion rate of 78% only once in our last five fixtures – sloppy possession notably creating irreversible periods of pressure against Liverpool. MUFC are guaranteed to come looking for the ball and to press us consistently – we have to not panic and look for the right pass, as well as work harder to create space and passing opportunities to ensure we do not resort to speculative hits.
Naturally, we should look again to be organised, disciplined and work hard when not in possession – the fear of being rolled over by a team who has won 5-0 in two of their last three PL fixtures should resonate highly.
Final thought and gut feeling:
In theory, it’s a better time to play Man Utd with notable injuries and our home advantage – but they still look a strong outfit and with Dimitar Berbatov in scoring form they are a danger to anyone. In our current form (particularly defensively) I think a draw would be an excellent result, but can’t see anything more than that.