The banner flourished in the Gallowgate End before kick off was unequivocal: “We don’t surrender,” it read. Had the Manchester United fans been so inclined, they could have responded with a sign which encompassed the attitude of several of their players on the St James’ Park pitch: “We don’t compete.”
Yet again playing a side in the top half of the Premier League table, Manchester United were second best. Actually, given the referee Robert Jones and his team had fine games, maybe third best. And it was not hard to see why. Against a well organised, committed and determined side like Newcastle what was needed was teeth-gritted, all-action determination.
Instead, from Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial came as half-hearted a display as can have been recorded this season. Uncommitted, uninvolved, and uninterested may well be an attitude that has long been associated with Martial, a player that most Manchester United fans long ago regarded as not exactly tigerish in his disposition. But even he was pushed to match Rashford as the most lacklustre player on the pitch, with those words an accurate summary of his efforts. Last season’s leading scorer for his club, Rashford is currently mired in a fog of depression that infects his every move.
Whenever Erik ten Hag is interviewed after a game, he invariably mentions how his team have performed without the ball. Well against Newcastle they were taught a real lesson on that side of things. Eddie Howe’s players ran and pressed and harried. Meanwhile, Martial and Rashford dawdled and daydreamed, rarely making the slightest effort to keep in step with their opponent.
Miguel Almirón and Anthony Gordon, Newcastle’s wide men, by contrast, never stopped. This was why the home side had so much of the possession, so much of the opportunities: the pair were a whirl of activity. This constant ferocious pressing allowed the full-backs behind them the opportunity to dash forward. And as they went they were accompanied by no hint of a trackback.
Last month Tino Livramento had been gifted the freedom of Old Trafford in the Carabao Cup tie. It wasn’t as if his threat presented Man Utd with surprise: his abilities presented clear and obvious danger. Yet, despite surely being briefed to stick to him like glue, Rashford gave him as much time as he needed, behaving as if the very fact of keeping abreast of the Newcastle player as he ran forward was beneath someone of his stature.
For Rashford, the contrast with the way Gordon went about his work was telling. A quixotic young talent, the words discipline and effort were rarely mentioned in descriptions of his play at Everton. Yet he has blossomed under Eddie Howe’s stewardship, adding a real maturity to the obvious talent. It is hard to argue against the proposition that right now Gordon would present a far more effective presence on the left side of the England team than Rashford. Were Gareth Southgate a manager less inclined to stick with those who have served him in the past, you would imagine such an idea was already occupying his thoughts.
Anthony Gordon gives Newcastle a deserved lead at St. James' Park! 💥 pic.twitter.com/vPdY7xo5AJ
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) December 2, 2023
You didn’t need to have a PhD in body language to see Rashford is currently a player in trouble, his confidence in the gutter. A shrug here, a fling of his arms out from his sides there, a pointless tumble when he had lost possession in between: he looked in a permanent state of imminent surrender. Here’s how wretched his performance was at St James’: when Antony came on to replace him finally the team in red had a presence on the ball. The Brazilian even threatened to upend all sense of justice in the scoreline by putting the ball in the back of the net for an equaliser, albeit one quickly scratched off when the luckless Harry Maguire – along with Luke Shaw, Ten Hag’s best player – found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. For Rashford, that is as dark an indictment of a performance as you can get, when Antony is more effective than you are.
So what does Ten Hag do from here? In the Premier League, his team continues to look a mile off the most accomplished sides. They have now lost against Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester City and Newcastle. Against the top teams, there needs to be a major improvement across the second half of the season: you don’t qualify for Europe solely by beating sides in the relegation zone. And speaking of Europe, he needs a miracle to survive in the Champions League. But in modern football miracles tend not to happen without lung-busting work rate.
He simply cannot afford to go into another game selecting players as off-the-pace and unhelpful as Martial and Rashford. With Jadon Sancho apparently completely off limits, that reduces his forward options to Rasmus Hojlund, a centre forward who hasn’t scored a league goal, the raw teenager Alejandro Garnacho and Antony. You begin to wonder whether looking at the prospect of owning 25 per cent of such a blunt attacking threat, Sir Jim Ratcliffe might decide, given the seemingly eternal wait to ratify his investment, that he might not bother.