Responding to pressure
If you’d have been told at the start of this season that Manchester United would concede 11 goals in their first three Premier League games you’d expect to see Dean Henderson in goal for the fourth game.
Yet in truth De Gea hadn’t done a great deal wrong despite the disastrous start to the season, especially defensively. In fact he was unfortunate his penalty save against Crystal Palace didn’t count and made fine saves against the Eagles and against Brighton.
There was always a theory that a greater challenge for his place in the team could be just what he needs and in Henderson he has that now. So far De Gea is rising to that challenge and he made some key saves against Newcastle.
He did well to claw away Alain Saint-Maximin’s fierce first-half drive but his sprawling save from Callum Wilson’s toe-poke early in the second half was outstanding. Not only did De Gea make the save but he got enough behind it to claw it away from Wilson, who was waiting to pounce on the follow-up.
Mata’s enduring class
This was the first time Juan Mata had started a Premier League game for United since February 1 but on the evidence of his performances so far this season he won’t be waiting more than nine months for the next one.
That start against Wolves was actually the third league start for Mata four games but he’d drifted to the fringes ever since then.
Perhaps Mata was marginalised as a result of the arrival of Bruno Fernandes but those two actually linked up quite well after Fernandes’ January arrival. When the front three of Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were run into the ground last season, with Solskjaer bemoaning his options off the bench, perhaps he should have turned to Mata more often.
This season the 32-year-old has proven he has plenty still to offer in two excellent Carabao Cup games against Luton and Brighton and this Premier League start was overdue.
Mata continued his impressive start to the campaign and was United’s most creative player, consistently drifting infield from the right to find space in dangerous areas. United might not have got the right-winger they wanted in the transfer window, but in Mata they still have a very good option for that position.
A subtle pre-match message
When Solskjaer spoke to the broadcasters before kick-off at St James’ Park he was asked what he wanted to see from his side after having two weeks to mull over the 6-1 loss to Tottenham, and after asking primarily for a response he listed “energy and attitude” as well as “different body language”.
The message was clear there. He was not impressed with the way United went about their business against Spurs and you suspect he made his feelings clear. Every footballer can be forgiven a bad day but to be criticised for your attitude and body language is damning.
We can only guess that some of those players dropped to fall into that category, most obviously Paul Pogba, who has been poor so far in the Premier League this season. Now Solskjaer has to hope the message is getting through.
Timing is everything
Solskjaer has made a habit of picking up wins at crucial stages in his United tenure and this fits right into that category. When he saw the manner of Newcastle’s opener he would have been fearing the worst and when Bruno Fernandes missed a second-half penalty that feeling would have been reinforced, but United emerged with the victory their play deserved.
United had been the better side at St James’ Park but time was running out before Fernandes produced a fine finish after excellent play from Donny van de Beek, Mata and Marcus Rashford.
Given the difficult games to come this month this was a fixture that just had to end in a win for United and Solskjaer. They will take confidence from the performance and belief from the result. To have gone into successive league games against Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton without these three points would have been a huge ask.
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Aaron Wan-Bissaka might have had to wait for his first United goal but when it arrived it was a net-buster, a fierce strike that gave an injured Karl Darlow no chance.
The most surprising element of the goal was that Wan-Bissaka found himself in that position, well inside the penalty area in the final couple of minutes of a game which United led only narrowly.
But this had been a much better attacking performance from United’s right-back, who continues to improve in that regard. With Mata cutting inside he regularly offered an overlap and has often looked better when he has clear grass to run into and his attacking contributions can be easily defined.
United need more in the final third from their full-backs so this was a good night for Wan-Bissaka, capped with a memorable moment.