United still searching for structure but Newcastle have found their saint
Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

A below-par Manchester United had Edinson Cavani to thank after his 71st-minute goal gave the visitors at least something to take back from the North East. Newcastle United will have felt disappointed to have not taken the full three points on offer after Allan Saint-Maximin had given the home side a first-half lead.

The unfolding narratives at both Uniteds have defined this Premier League season so far and, with the hope of new eras quickly dawning, this was a share of the spoils that did neither of them any good.

United’s aims of keeping in toe with the top four were dented by this result but it’s the meagre display that suggests that they are not at the level to challenge a rejuvenated Tottenham Hotspur or ascending Arsenal. Newcastle, meanwhile, need points more than anything but their showing provided reasons for optimism for the team second from bottom.

Structureless United

United were playing their first game in 16 days due to a Covid-enforced break, however, Raphael Varane featured for the first time since November 2 after a layoff with a hamstring injury. The French centre back was rusty on his return and that led to an unstable United defence.

Varane lost possession in the build up to Newcastle’s goal. He was easily dispossessed by Sean Longstaff and was not in a position to turn quickly enough and race back to stop the marauding Saint-Maximin in his tracks. The former Real Madrid defender was close to gifting Newcastle further chances in dangerous areas but did demonstrate a cool head to get out of some tricky situations.

However, Varane was not the only United player who looked off the pace. The visiting defence gave the ball away 53 times in total and there was little in the way of a structure to United’s defensive work. They allowed Newcastle eight shots on target, which is more than they have managed in their last seven matches.

The narrow 4-2-2-2 set-up preferred by Ralf Rangnick, for the time being at least, appears to make United unbalanced. They were easily opened up by Newcastle and any semblance of a cohesive press noticeable by its absence. Just over a month into his time at the club and Rangnick’s work with the team has been heavily disrupted, this is still not how he wants his side to play.

Half time changes

It wasn’t just individual lapses and errors that cost United, however, this was a messy team display from Rangnick’s men. A below-par first half gave way to small improvements after the interval but this was a performance that the United manager will want to dissect.

Rangnick had to make changes at the interval, up until that point they had been lacklustre and offered little in attack. Removing the ineffectual Mason Greenwood for Cavani was the correct decision. The Uruguayan striker scored United’s equaliser in what were his first minutes in the league under the interim manager.

United lacked a plethora of attributes in the first period and deservedly went in at the break a goal down. There was little positive to say about the visitors’ attack with Marcus Rashford struggling to have an impact, and Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes failing to manage a shot on target between them. They were thankful for Cavani’s intervention.

Creative full backs?

One noticeable choice that Rangnick has made in the early throws of his reign is the selection of Diogo Dalot and Alex Telles as United’s full backs. Whereas Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw were the choice pairing under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they now find themselves playing second fiddle.

Rangnick has started Dalot and Telles in all three of the Premier League games he has taken charge of so far. The pair may be able to offer more in the final third and quick switches of play could become a crucial element of United’s more aggressive play, but they need to find a fix for a poor set-piece return: United are the only team in the league who are yet to score from a dead-ball situation.

Newcastle prevented United’s full backs from being able to advance upfield at will. Ryan Fraser’s energy penned in Telles while Saint-Maximin’s threat and trickery proved a constant menace for Dalot. United’s right back was flat footed when the French winger bypassed his marker and bore down on David De Gea before unleashing his goalbound strike.

The Toon Army’s Saint

When watching Newcastle play, Saint-Maximin often steals the show. This season, which still contains only one league win, has not been the easiest for those on the Gallowgate, but the sight of their French saint always provides hope.

The manner in which Saint-Maximin lights up the left side of Newcastle’s attack befits a player who should be playing for a side higher up the division and away from such relegation mire. The 24-year-old has scored four of Newcastle’s 19 league goals and assisted three more, but it’s his ingenuity and constant cutting in from the left that offers so much to Newcastle.

If Eddie Howe is to steer Newcastle to safety this term then he will rely heavily on Saint-Maximin’s output and how he can forge an efficient outlet with Joelinton and Callum Wilson. What will worry Howe is that Saint-Maximin and Wilson both exited the game with injuries. This was one of the most front-footed Newcastle displays that St James’ Park has seen for a while and Saint-Maximin set the tempo.