Manchester United approach against Newcastle highlighted their biggest squad problem

April 3, 2023

Erik ten Hag labelled Newcastle as ‘annoying’ in reference to their tactical approach when these two sides met earlier in the season. What was most annoying, though, is that his Manchester United side failed to replicate just that at St. James’ Park on Sunday.

The earlier league meeting had ended in a goalless draw at Old Trafford as the visitors frustrated their opponents, the truth is that it is far easier said than done.

The only chance this had of finishing the same would have been if Newcastle were as wasteful in the second-half as they were in the first, but while United never looked like scoring, they always looked like conceding.

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From the first few minutes, David de Gea deliberated over his goal-kicks, taking all the time he could get away with before he eventually launched the ball upfield.

United practised the dark arts with some creative ways of running down the clock, be it from Antony making the most of the fouls against him, or Bruno Fernandes side-stepping up the sideline before eventually launching a throw-in.

It might not have been the most pretty football, but it was their most effective option. Not only did it stop Newcastle from finding a long-term rhythm in the match, but it also frustrated the lively home crowd, channeling their energy into protests against United as they looked to perform a snatch-and-grab.

The harsh reality, though, is that all it did was delay the inevitable and leave them with little opportunity to ever fight back—not that they ever looked remotely like doing so.

United’s midfield was a real problem again, as they struggled to have any meaningful presence at all, but that was no surprise on a day without both Casemiro and Christian Eriksen again.

The absentees encapsulate everything that Ten Hag wants from his side, and without them available, it is seemingly pointless to try and imitate the controlling style of play that he wants.

It meant that United had no real option but to adopt the approach that they did, having to accept that if they tried to control the midfield with their makeshift selection, they would have had even less of a grip on the game.

The problem with such a game plan was that it would also rely on a moment of magic or a set-piece to have any hopes of winning the game themselves, and those odds were always stacked against them.

When Joe Willock finally gave his side a deserved lead, it seemed like there was no way back, and when Callum Wilson finally added a second, it proved that there wasn’t.

This time, Ten Hag has every right to be annoyed for very different reasons.