It wasn’t really worth the wait. After over a fortnight of inactivity because of a Covid outbreak, Manchester United returned to action with a lacklustre performance at Newcastle.
The fact they came away with a point, thanks to Edinson Cavani’s equaliser 19 minutes from time, was just about the only positive they took away from St James’ Park.
While the rustiness from the time off and any lingering effects of the virus must be taken as mitigation, it doesn’t come close to excusing another display that summed up the drift and decay of the modern United.
It was another night of frustration for Manchester United as they came away with just a point from Newcastle on Monday night after two weeks of inactivity thanks to Covid
That result leaves them seven points adrift of Arsenal in the final Champions League place
Sulky body language, a shortage of energy, a catalogue of unforced errors and wide open spaces in defence were just some of the issues that would have alarmed interim manager Ralf Rangnick.
The German has been brought in as a safe pair of hands to salvage another turbulent season and steer United to a top four finish and a return to Champions League football.
But reality must be dawning on Rangnick that United’s top four hopes are already hanging by a thread. Already seven points off Arsenal in fourth, they can ill-afford to drop any more points during what is a kind festive fixture list.
Interim manager Ralf Rangnick will be expected to deliver United a top four finish
Having played poorly at Norwich before the Covid problems, United were even worse against a Newcastle side who started the night bottom of the table and who had conceded 11 times in their last three matches.
Somehow, this dysfunctional United side made them look brilliant and, as so often, were left indebted to crucial late saves from David de Gea to take even a point.
We take a closer look at some of the problems Rangnick must address with urgency if United are to achieve that top four finish.
Poor body language
You’d have thought United would be raring to go having not played for two weeks but their mental approach to Monday night’s match was all wrong.
While title challengers Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool usually start matches strongly and go about their business with ruthless precision, United didn’t turn up at all in the first-half.
It’s become something of a theme that if their early attacks don’t come off as intended, or if a few passes go astray, frustration quickly creeps in, shoulders slump and arms wave.
Gary Neville furiously labelled United a ‘bunch of whingebags’ after a shambolic performance
Gary Neville nailed it in the Sky Sports studio at half-time: ‘They’re whinging at each other! They’re a bunch of whingebags!
‘Watch them on that pitch, arms up in the air, complaining about everything. Honestly, they’re absolutely shocking.’
It didn’t help that they fell a goal behind just seven minutes in thanks to Allan Saint-Maximin but United seemed to lack patience and an element of trust in their game plan and abilities.
As a result of this shoddy attitude to the task at hand, there weren’t any positives at all to take from the opening 45 and very few from the second-half.
Alex Telles (above), Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo all complained vocally on the field
The bad body language has been a feature of a frustrating season. All their work under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was supposed to translate into success and silverware this time around but the reality was the exact opposite.
Although Rangnick may yet salvage something from the campaign, it feels as though it’s already a write-off, another lost year, and the players are refusing to hide their frustration.
Lack of respect from Ronaldo
As the United players went over to applaud the 3,000 travelling fans up in the Gods at St James’ Park, there was one player conspicuous by his absence.
Cristiano Ronaldo wasted little time heading for the tunnel at the final whistle, barely acknowledging the Newcastle players let alone those who’d made the journey to support.
It’s far from the first time he’s done this and it’s a baffling show of disrespect for supporters who follow the team everywhere at great expense and effort.
Ronaldo stormed down the tunnel at the final whistle rather than going to applaud the fans
Edinson Cavani applauds the travelling fans after salvaging a point at St James’ Park
Not only that, but these fans hero worship him and regularly sing his name.
As Neville said: ‘I don’t care how you’ve played, You need to go over and clap the fans at the end of the game. Get over to them, particularly when you’re the best player in the world, and one of the greatest of all time.’
Rangnick gives the impression that he doesn’t care at all for egotistical players and he needs to have a quiet word, as do his team-mates. After all, they should be a ‘team.’
There was plenty of arm-waving from Ronaldo and others as United struggled to get going
Rangnick needs to re-think his formation
You can’t blame Rangnick for going with what he knows with limited time available on the training ground amid a hectic schedule and then the Covid complication.
But it’s already clear his favoured 4-2-2-2 formation doesn’t get the best out of this United team.
The formation asks a lot of the two wing-backs and while Diogo Dalot and Alex Telles are undoubtedly skilled pushing forward, any team quick on the transition and the counter is liable to leave United exposed defensively.
Harry Maguire looks dejected after the final whistle with two more points dropped by United
Man United fixtures
Premier League unless stated
Thursday Burnley (H)
January 3 Wolves (H)
January 10 Aston Villa (H)
FA Cup third round
January 15 Aston Villa (A)
January 22 West Ham (H)
February 8 Burnley (A)
Further forward, it can become congested, as was evident against Newcastle. While another forward playing alongside Ronaldo – Mason Greenwood in this case – is designed to support the Portuguese star, there is a lot of treading on toes.
That’s especially true when you have Marcus Rashford tucked in behind them and also Bruno Fernandes. Everyone seemed to want to occupy the same space and attacks became disjointed.
This United side played 4-2-3-1 under Solskjaer for so long, it might be worth going back to it. That shape provides a greater balance and the necessary width without too much reliance on the full-backs.
Wide open at the back
The corollary to this is that United are then short-handed in defence. Newcastle, with their speedy players, were perfectly equipped to take advantage – and did so.
Harry Maguire has many qualities but the speed to cover vacant spaces that an attacker might run into unfortunately isn’t one of them.
His inclination to bring the ball out of defence to try and get United moving is fine until he is caught in possession, then panic sets in.
On Monday, he was paired with Raphael Varane, in action for the first time since November 2 because of a hamstring injury.
Raphael Varane returned to action for United after suffering a hamstring injury in November
These two will be United’s first choice centre-back pairing going forward but they’ve barely played together yet and it showed.
It didn’t help that the intense press evident in Rangnick’s first game against Crystal Palace was absent.
The German coach demands that the attackers provide the first line of defence. Against a struggling side like Newcastle, fragile in confidence, mistakes could have been forced.
But it didn’t happen and even they were able to cut through United too often for comfort. When this happened on a quick turnover of possession, with the full-backs stranded up the field, Rangnick’s team were wide open and that’s a big worry.
Dave saves (too often)
David de Gea has been United’s Player of the Year four times since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and must be odds on to add a fifth.
They’re simply too reliant on their Spanish keeper to save them in matches. It was the same on Tyneside, with De Gea making a string of crucial stops, notably from Miguel Almiron in the dying moments, to avert the calamity of defeat.
David de Gea makes one of a number of important saves during Monday night’s draw
United would be stranded in mid-table if not for the excellence of their Spanish goalkeeper
It was the same story in the win at Norwich, when De Gea saved from Teemu Pukki and Ozan Kabak to get United over the line.
It’s one of football’s universal truths that if your goalkeeper is the man of the match, something is going wrong.
United are indebted to De Gea far too often for comfort. Without him, we wouldn’t just be debating whether they can make the top four this season but whether they can make the top half.