‘Underdog football’ the latest Ten Hag plan to fall flat after Newcastle defeat

<span>Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA</span>
Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

As the players finished their handshakes and retreated to their halves ahead of kick-off the familiar strains of Local Hero tumbling from the public address briefly faltered, before starting again from the beginning. A rewind was exactly what was coming next, with Newcastle and Manchester United reminding us exactly what they are about.

Towards the end of normal time in an utterly one-sided match substitute Antony’s shot deflecting in off Harry Maguire (who mercifully for the home side was offside) briefly threatened to taunt the Geordies over a lack of ability to kill an occasion game – the same trait that had improbably robbed them of three points against an ailing, 10-man Liverpool back in late August. Yet anything other than a home win would have been moonlight robbery.

Related: Newcastle’s Anthony Gordon punishes weary Manchester United

That the visitors actually arrived here a point and a place ahead of their hosts ahead of kick-off took some absorbing, given the moods around the respective teams. The goal differences – Newcastle’s plus-17 to United’s zero – told a different tale of the tape. For Erik ten Hag’s team to arrive with ambition should not have been misplaced in the light of their opponents’ stretched resources. Barely two minutes had passed when Bruno Guimarāes seemed to shoot a wince towards the bench, putting hearts in mouths again.

The miles are running up apace on Newcastle’s creaking squad. Eddie Howe’s XI, like all the best teams, pretty much picks itself, though in this case largely due to the paucity of current alternatives. Given that, not to mention their Herculean effort in Paris on Tuesday, it was remarkable that Newcastle were more athletic, more positive, hungrier from the off. Ten Hag’s players might have arrived via a near-three-hour coach trip here when weather conditions forced the cancellation of their flight, but it was hardly Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona undertaking 10 hours on the bus to Milan.

Their only real hint of wit arrived just past the 10-minute mark, when Bruno Fernandes’ dagger of a pass found Alejandro Garnacho, who shot more or less straight at Nick Pope. It reminded us, as the better bits of Wednesday night’s helter-skelter ride at Galatasaray had, that for all their ups and downs, United are normally at their best when the captain writes the script, as has been the case almost without interruption in the nearly five years since he arrived from Sporting.

Beside him Kobbie Mainoo, given his second straight Premier League start in a second straight challenging domestic away trip, again looked neat and tidy at the beginning, and it had been his touch that had allowed Fernandes’ ouverture for Garnacho. Yet he was subsequently given few chances to shine with he, Fernandes and Scott McTominay swamped by the intensity of Guimarāes, Joelinton and Newcastle’s own outstanding teenage midfielder, Lewis Miley.

Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes reacts after the Premier League defeat by Newcastle.
Bruno Fernandes failed to have any influence in Manchester United’s midfield against Newcastle. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA

With that said United defended stoutly in the sort of situation that allowed Maguire, for example, to look his best self. There were close calls, notably Kieran Trippier’s delicious free-kick dipping to smack the crossbar with André Onana a spectator, but Newcastle were made to think and plot their way through, even in their dominance. Their smart winning goal, snaffled by Anthony Gordon after Guimarāes and Trippier combined, was exactly that.

This was, as Julian Nagelsmann might put it, “underdog football” from the visitors, with ambition perhaps synonymous with the brand but reluctantly accepted, for now, not to be the order of the day at Old Trafford. Such was United’s submissive stance that Fernandes could barely bring himself to complain to Robert Jones when the referee failed to book Fabian Schär for cynically tripping him on halfway, snuffing out a possible counterattack early in the second half (although he made up for it later when the Swiss defender caught him with studs high on the left foot).

Much of Ten Hag’s United tenure has been this. Parking grand hopes and big ideals until at least some semblance of functionality could be achieved, “until this was patched, until that was patched,” as Gil Scott-Heron once sang. Fernandes has so often circumvented the need for a collective strategy but when he fails to fire, there is little left. Marcus Rashford laboured miserably and Garnacho resembled the player who was being outpaced by Hakim Ziyech shortly before the end of his Wednesday night in Istanbul, rather than one who started it with a fine goal.

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Guimarāes, meanwhile, pressed out to the halfway line as Newcastle defended deep into stoppage time, still waving his arms and exhorting the crowd to come with him as he went, as he often does. If only Ten Hag’s men had such a rabble-rouser. Maguire had ended up partnering Rasmus Højlund up front, the last refuge of the tactically out-of-ideas. Even if it took this match for the two Uniteds to change places in the table, this couldn’t have made their differing directions any clearer.