It can be all too easy to turn every Manchester United loss into a referendum on the club – on the state of the Jose Mourinho administration, its progress and its future. And especially lately. United has been staggeringly underwhelming at times. It’s been un-Mourinho-like.
But not every loss needs to be an occasion for doom-and-gloom grousing. Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at Newcastle feels like one of those.
United left St. James’ Park exasperated after 90 minutes of control, several spurned chances at one end, and one conceded at the other. But the one, rather than the several, proved decisive. That one was Matt Ritchie’s 65th-minute winner.
It clinched Newcastle’s first home win since October, and pulled the Magpies out of the congested relegation zone, all the way up into 13th. It kept United stagnant in second place. But it didn’t teach us much we didn’t already know.
There are, to be clear, problems at United. Chief among them is Paul Pogba, who, despite being one of the most talented players on the pitch, was one of the most ineffective for 65 minutes. And then Jose Mourinho yanked him. Again.
The two had an uncomfortably public falling out during a 2-0 loss to Tottenham 11 days ago, after which Pogba was substituted. Mourinho responded by rage-quitting and benching his star that weekend. On his return to the starting lineup, the French midfielder looked frustrated and uninterested. And on the substitutes bench after being replaced by Michael Carrick, he was in despair:
— Ori-Ade (@JrAdeniyi) February 11, 2018
Put aside the fact that Mourinho might have temporarily broken his best player, though, and United was just fine. It created more than enough to not just draw the game, but to win it:
xG map for Newcastle – Manchester United. Many parts of this game were funny, but United were really pretty good. Problem is, the top four race gets tighter United haven't shown a higher gear. pic.twitter.com/4PlkMHobV8
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) February 11, 2018
Martin Dubravka was the hero. Newcastle’s new Slovakian keeper, signed on deadline day from Sparta Prague, sparkled on his debut. Anthony Martial, on the end of a seeing-eye Nemanja Matic through-ball, bore down on him one-on-one in the first half, but Dubravka was up to the task.
— VOOsport (@VOOsport) February 11, 2018
He then kept his net pristine with an impressive reflex save in the final minute of second-half stoppage time.
His defenders were heroic as well. Romelu Lukaku turned Jamaal Lascelles inside-out with a deceptive ball to a slashing Sanchez, and Sanchez rounded Dubravka to find the goal gaping. But the Chilean hesitated one step too many, and Florian Lejeune raced back to keep United off the board.
Newcastle found itself pinned back for extended stretches. But when it did close down the ball … man, did it close down the ball. It flew to it without fear. Jonjo Shelvey and Mo Diame were combative and attentive in midfield. Lejeune and Lascelles put their bodies on the line time and time again. Martial slammed two close-range shots right into Dwight Gayle on the goal line.
Martial was in disbelief. Many United fans must have been as well. Their team could have been better. At the same time, they weren’t impotent. And they weren’t hopelessly stretched in midfield. Sometimes you have to just throw your hands up and concede to lady luck.
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