With their recent tribulations, Manchester United fans have been condescendingly reminded of the need for patience, as every set of supporters suffering under a disappointing British manager have heard since the calls for Sir Alex Ferguson’s head in 1989. However, while the media have been busy lowering expectations for the champions, David Moyes is invoking memories of a bit later in Ferguson’s reign, claiming they are still in the title race despite being some way off the pace: “I stand firm we will be very close. I hope we are in it at the end of the season.”
United had been stuck ten points behind Newcastle at Christmas in 1995, which stretched to twelve points in January, only to recoup the difference and win the league. The performance most reminiscent of United’s recent foibles came the next season however, in another title-winning season: it has been quite some time since a Newcastle side out-ran, out-passed and out-thought United as Alan Pardew’s team did earlier this month, although the last time was a bit more impressive.
After the ignominy of the manner they surrendered the league in 1996, Newcastle went all out, spending a world record Â£15 million on top scorer Alan Shearer to partner the already prolific Les Ferdinand. As they lined up for their October clash with rivals United, the whispers were that their transfer extravagance would have been better spent on upgrading the defence rather than another attacker, however good he was – Neil Harman writing “The achilles heel of Newcastle’s extravagant attempt to wrest the Premiership from Manchester United is a defence which, at moments of pressure, tends to react like a bunch of frisky colts. Defend like that against Manchester United tomorrow and they are surely done for. Newcastle continue to resemble a defensive sow’s ear, with no silk purse in sight.”
Kevin Keegan ignored the criticism and continued with a side dedicated to entertaining, attacking football, yet Newcastle never looked in real danger of conceding. Much like Pep Guardiola’s admission that his Barcelona side were awful without the ball, Keegan’s answer to his defensive issue was to ensure United didn’t get near the defence. Playing a high octane pressing game meant they either won the ball back in United’s half or forced them into playing easy to defend long balls.
One of the things that has been (generally) lost in the shift away from the ubiquitous 4-4-2 to lone striker systems is that every defender can be occupied by an attacker in a 4-4-2, while a single striker will find it more difficult to not have the defenders pass around him and into the midfield. Shearer and Ferdinand would position themselves in front of Nicky Butt and Ronny Johnsen, blocking passes into them, and pressure the defenders as David Ginola and Rob Lee moved up against the full-backs. Several times United’s backline would hit it just to the side of Butt and Johnsen but Peter Beardsley and David Batty would push up against them too and pounce on the loose balls.
This meant that United’s only option for getting the ball forward was long balls for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to contest. This appeared to be United’s main attacking plan regardless of Newcastle’s pressing, as they punted the ball towards the Norwegian in the channels several times early on even when under little pressure. Newcastle’s defenders typically won these duels and even when they didn’t, Solskjaer winning possession was mostly ineffectual as their line moved high up the pitch away from danger areas. In theory, United could hit balls into the space behind them for Solskjaer to chase for a one-on-one, but Pavel Srnicek did an excellent job of sweeping up, racing far from his line to collect any loose balls before the striker could get to them. Eric Cantona was so effective in English football in part because of the space afforded to him between the lines, yet Newcastle’s high line squeezed him completely out of the game.
United’s wingers were also anonymous. David Beckham suffered from the defence’s inability to get the ball out from the back, meaning he never received the supply that allowed him to supply Solskjaer, while Karel Poborsky’s physicality meant he saw more of the ball, even if he was having to come very deep to get it, but playing on the wrong side meant he was forever having to come into the centre where Newcastle were dominating, when it would have probably have suited United better to have an outlet that could run straight down the line out wide. The loss of the midfield battle shares similarities with United’s issues today: neither Butt or Johnsen were poor with the ball, but the former’s best attributes were his work-rate and ball-winning while the latter was best as a defender.
By contrast, Newcastle’s plethora of attacking options had seen Beardsley moved back into midfield and Batty was primarily a ball-winner but would immediately distribute a short ball and run beyond his man. This superiority meant the United duo had to stick close to them, dragging them higher up the pitch and opening space behind them for Ginola to exploit. The Frenchman was the match’s stand-out player, helped by the rest of the side arranged to isolate Gary Neville. One of Shearer or Ferdinand would move right to battle Denis Irwin, with Lee making runs between him and the centre-back, dragging everyone over to that side of the pitch. As Butt and Johnsen were occupied by Beardsley and Batty and the rest of the defence by Newcastle’s attack, Ginola was left alone to torment Neville, who was also expected to get forward.
Newcastle’s high line also gave them a lot of space to drop into, meaning, with plenty of space unlike United’s, their defenders could pick out passes with long balls, while their strikers were much more suited to aerial duels than Solskjaer.
United had little reply other than to get wound up. Butt was booked for a fracas with Batty that would have seen both players sent off multiple times today, Pallister was very obviously furious and the rest were taking it in turns to kick lumps out of Ginola, who was enjoying himself so much he was drifting all over the pitch to take on all comers.
It was only at 3-0 down that Ferguson changed his tactics, bringing on Paul Scholes and Brian McClair and moving Beckham into the middle to create more of a 4-3-3, with the front three pushed up against Newcastle’s defence. This was essentially him trying to recreate how Newcastle had dominated: pressing high and winning the midfield, but only really opened up the wings further for Keegan’s team.