The banner flourished in the Gallowgate End before its unequivocal debut: “We do not surrender,” it read. If Manchester United fans were so biased, they could have responded with a sign that embodied the attitude of some of their players on the St James’s pitch: “We’re not competing.”
Repeatedly playing a side at the top of the League tables, Manchester United were second best. In fact, given that referee Robert Jones and his team had excellent games, perhaps third best. And it wasn’t hard to see why. Against a well-organised, determined and resolute side like Newcastle what was needed was toothy, all-action determination.
Instead, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial turned in as half-hearted a display as can be recorded this season. It may be a long-standing attitude of uncommitted, disengaged and disinterested in Martial, a player most Manchester United fans have long regarded as not quite a tiger in spirit. But even he was pressed to match Rashford as the most inconsistent player on the pitch, with those words summing up his efforts perfectly. Last season’s top scorer for his club, is currently stuck in a fog of depression that infects his every move.
When Erik ten Hag is interviewed after a game, he always mentions how his team performed without the ball. Well against Newcastle they were taught a real lesson on that side of things. Eddie Howe’s players ran and pushed and betrayed. Martial and Rashford, meanwhile, were whining and dreaming, rarely making the slightest effort to keep pace with their opponents.
In contrast, Newcastle wide men Miguel Almiron and Anthony Gordon were unstoppable. That’s why the home team had so much possession, so many of the chances: both were activity visits. This constant surge of pressure allowed the defenders behind them to push forward. And as they went they were with them without a hint of trackback. Last month Tino Livramento gave Old Trafford freedom in the Carabao Cup. It wasn’t that his threat surprised Man Utd: his ability was a clear and obvious danger. But, despite being told to stick to it like glue, Rashford gave him as much time as he wanted, behaving as if it was about someone of his stature to be aware of it. Newcastle player running forward.
For Rashford, the contrast with Gordon’s approach to his work was telling. A quixotic young talent, the words discipline and effort were rarely mentioned in describing his play at Everton. But he has flourished under Eddie Howe, bringing real maturity to the obvious talent. It is hard to argue against the suggestion that Gordon would be a much more effective presence on the left side of the England team than Rashford. If Gareth Southgate was a manager who wasn’t as inclined to stick with those who have served him in the past, you’d imagine that such an idea was already affecting his thinking.
It didn’t take a PhD in body language to see that Rashford is in trouble right now, his confidence in the gutter. A shrug here, his weapon flinged out from his side there, dived pointlessly when he had lost possession in between: he looked in a permanent state of immediate surrender. Here’s how pathetic his performance was at St James’s: when Antony finally came on to replace him the team in red was present on the ball. The Brazilian even threatened to throw all sense of justice into the scoreline by putting the ball into the back of the net for an equaliser, although one was quickly swept away when the lucky Harry Maguire – along with ten-year-old Luke Shaw – found the net. Hag’s favorite player – himself. in the wrong place at the wrong time. For Rashford, that is as dark an indictment of performance as you can get, when Antony is more effective than you.
So what makes ten Hens out of this? In the Premier League, his team continues to look a mile away from the most talented sides. They have now lost against Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester City and Newcastle. Against the best teams, the second half of the season has to improve a lot: you only qualify for Europe by beating the teams in the relegation zone. Speaking of Europe, he needs a miracle to survive in the Champions League. But in modern football miracles usually don’t happen without a lung-busting work rate.
He cannot afford to go into another game selecting players who are not as quick and helpful as Martial and Rashford. Jadon Sancho appears to be completely out of bounds, which reduces his options up front to Rasmus Hojlund, a center forward who has yet to score a league goal, raw teenager Alejandro Garnacho and Antony. You start to wonder if Sir Jim Ratcliffe, looking at the prospect of 25 per cent such an aggressive threat, will decide not to bother, given his eternal wait for his investment to be confirmed.