An in-crisis Manchester United take on Newcastle on Saturday having gone winless in their last four games, which includes two disastrous defeats.
With manager Jose Mourinho seemingly at odds with most, if not all of his players, and the Premier League title contenders racing away in the distance, the Red Devils know they need a win to avoid a complete meltdown.
Here are the talking points ahead of the game.
OLD TRAFFORD HANGS ON EDGE
United’s players were booed off after their Champions League draw against Valencia in midweek, understandable after the performance they’d just completed. Though the fans have been in characteristic good voice on away trips regardless of the result, and offered a show of force after the 3-0 home loss to Tottenham – though that was more for Mourinho than for the players – it’s clear that the atmosphere is on edge, and on the verge of becoming toxic.
There were empty seats in the Valencia game, as well, with the likelihood of a repeat on Saturday. Between that discomfiting sight and the potential their fan base turns on them if they can’t deliver, the players are in for an uncomfortable evening.
If the players could make their own case, apart from the platitudes about sticking together and playing better, they’d probably say that they’d inspire more love from the United faithful if they had a manager who let them.
But at this point, if they don’t put in a fully committed effort, they will face the accusation of having downed tools, and anything other than a win will see another chorus of boos greet them at the final whistle.
LUKAKU ESCAPING BLAME
This was supposed to be a season of progress from United’s lead striker. Romelu Lukaku scored the most goals he’d ever scored in one campaign last season, then enjoyed a World Cup where he seemed to have matured and understood the responsibility that is thrust upon his shoulders.
Not to mention, he might be the only attacking player at United who still has a good relationship with Mourinho, unless Marcus Rashford was buoyed by the manager’s recent robust defence of him.
So why this sudden slump?
At times on Tuesday it seemed like Paul Pogba and the other midfielders were almost having to point to where they wanted Lukaku to run to, a rather inexplicable role reversal. Good strikers tell midfielders where they want the ball, and make the runs to support that. A slumping striker who can still point to good movement is one who can probably be confident of a quick return to form.
Lukaku is not in that mode at the moment, and while he may get praise for helping out at right-back when defending a lead, United wouldn’t be in crisis if he were converting chances at even a half-decent rate. No goals in five games is unacceptable form.
DO NEWCASTLE NEED THIS WIN MORE?
Newcastle have put in battling performances against Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal so far this season, only to come away with no points from all three. True, that’s not surprising, and the early season fixture list has not been kind to the Magpies – though this particular game looks much less daunting than it did when the schedule was released.
But it’s clear that the famous club are now reduced to punching above their weight and hoping it works. Last season, they were delivering a positive result or two along the way – they beat Arsenal, Chelsea, and indeed, United, and held Liverpool to a draw, while finishing in the top half of the table.
When that stops happening, no amount of, “tough luck, boys, well played” will lift spirits. Two points from their opening seven games is dangerously poor form, and though there’s talk that Rafa Benitez will be allowed to spend in January, at the moment escaping relegation seems like an even taller order than it did in 2017-18.
The Spaniard has done an admirable job keeping this squad afloat under the conditions he’s had to work with, but he needs to inspire more than good performances. A win on Saturday would go a long way.
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