Steve Bruce’s side travel to Old Trafford looking to complete the double over a struggling Manchester United side who slumped to yet another disappointing defeat at the hands of Watford on Sunday.
Miguel Almiron’s first goal for the Magpies in a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace lifted Newcastle up to 9th, level on points with the Red Devils, as Bruce continues to defy expectations. Constantly getting the better of their underlying numbers, Newcastle will be looking to frustrate Manchester United and heap the pressure on Ole Gunnar Solksjaer.
Defeat at Vicarage Road didn’t come as a great surprise, and was indicative of United’s inconsistent season where they’ve particularly struggled against team happy to sit in as a lack of creativity rings true through the midfield. The return of Paul Pogba will give the home side a boost, but whether they can live up to expectations as 1/3 favourites awaits to be seen.
The meeting between these two sides back in xx saw Newcastle sit deep and look to hit Manchester United on the counter, as they frustrated Solksjaer’s side and highlighted their struggles with regards to breaking teams down. It will be no surprise to see Bruce opt for the same shape he has done, particularly away from home, all be it with a stretched squad, and the deep, organised defensive line, coupled with a counter attacking threat, will be key to their hopes on Boxing Day.
Averaging just 39.3% possession all season, Bruce’s side opt to sit deep and afford the opposition plenty of time on the ball, setting up a rigid, well drilled defensive back five on the 18 yard box, with a hard working midfield four just in front, allowing very little space in behind for the opposition to work with. Whilst they have rode their luck in a number of their recent victories, they have been surprisingly clinical in front of goal, taking a lot of their chances, as well as relying on goals from unlikely sources, and although it begs the question how long can this last, it shows how Bruce is utilising the talent at his disposal to get the most effective football from his side.
Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof have been given tough run outs in their last two games by target men Troy Deeney and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, and with Andy Carroll potentially leading the line for Newcastle, they will be in for another battling afternoon at Old Trafford. Newcastle did opt for two up top against Palace with Joelinton joining Carroll up front, but I expect Bruce will look to go for the more reserved approach of one up top, and look to revert back to the 5-4-1 which brought success away at Spurs and home to Manchester United earlier this season. As a result, Newcastle will look to play long towards Carroll or Joelinton, before relying on the energy in midfield and wings from Miguel Almiron and potentially Christian Atsu to provide a link and hit United on the counter.
The move to bring Watford’s penalty and second goal on Sunday was indicative of the worries the Red Devils can have from this direct play, as their high line does leave space in behind for on rushing midfielders to break into, and this is certainly an area Newcastle can look to target. Coupled with the high positions the full backs opt to take, noticeably Luke Shaw on the left, it leaves an avenue of attack for Newcastle, and in these tough away games, they have relied upon their energetic wing backs to join these breaks, not being afraid to commit numbers forward on the break. With Shaw often leaving his channel exposed and Marcus Rashford’s tendency not to track back, Almiron and Javier Manquillo will be key to exposing this weakness, and could represent Newcastle’s best outlet throughout.
Manchester United’s worries when it comes to breaking down deep lying defences were on show once again, and Solksjaer will be keen to avoid a repeat of the defeat up at St James Park, which saw United dominate possession with a lack of any cutting edge, before being undone by Matty Longstaff’s excellent counter attacking winner.
The issue on Sunday came from the base of midfield, and whilst Fred and Scott McTominay have shown a greater defensive capability in games against Everton and Manchester City, when the impetus is on them to break down the opposition, passing through the lines and at tempo, they have particularly struggled. This will be the case once again on Boxing Day, due to how Bruce sets up his side, and there will be little space in behind for Rashford, Anthony Martial and Dan James to exploit.
However, one plus point from Sunday’s defeat was the return of key playmaker Paul Pogba, and he could hold the key to unpicking this tight, compact defence. His presence has been sorely missed by Manchester United during his injury lay off, and he showed off the bench against Watford just what they have been missing, injecting some creativity into the United midfield as they looked to break down the Hornets defence. Although they couldn’t break through the defence, in the 26 minutes he was on the pitch, he managed to create two openings for shots and provide a key pass, and his ability to break down a backline with little openings on offer will be key to any hope Solkjaer’s side have given their recent struggles in games such as these.
As alluded to, Newcastle are out-performing their numbers, and would actually be bottom of the league on expected points, and with their xGa at 30.78, and xG at 14.36, Manchester United should be confident of creating clear-cut openings at some point, particularly against a side who’s back five is stretched by injuries, and will particularly lacking in pace. If they are forced to come out and take the game to Manchester United, the spaces in behind will suit Rashford and Martial, so if Solksjaer’s side can score early, there will be plenty of opportunities to pick the game off.
Frenchman Paul Pogba is inline for his first start since returning from injury, and the impetus will be on the midfielder to step up and create for Manchester United. Relishing the spotlight such as this, he is well equipped to break down a Newcastle defence often outperforming their numbers, and if he gets going on Boxing Day, the signs could be ominous for Bruce’s side. He showed a willingness to take control against Watford on his substitute cameo, and as a result I’d be willing to take him at 3.0 (UniBet) to score anytime.
Manchester United are too tight to back at 1.33, especially given their woes against backlines such as this, but from a statistical point when considering Newcastle’s numbers, it goes a long way to explain it. Although not creating many chances, Newcastle are well set up to trouble the Red Devils on the counter, and should be able to cause problems down the flanks, particularly down United’s left side with Almiron. As a result, I’d be happy to take a go on both teams to score at 2.12 (MarathonBet), and although the underlying numbers do go a long way to explain these odds, Manchester United may struggle to cope with the counter and direct Newcastle play, much like against Watford and Everton in recent weeks.