By Simon Green
It seems bizarre to think that a single strike from the left boot of Matt Ritchie could provide the momentum that Newcastle United need to lift themselves from the mediocrity and misery that has characterised a particularly tricky return to top-flight football.
Despite this, Sunday’s game against Manchester United was about a lot more than the goal. Even if José Mourinho would have us think otherwise, Rafa’s men really earned their three points, albeit United were wasteful in some of their finishing. This was particularly true of Anthony Martial, but also new man Alexis Sanchez, who took the bizarre decision not to immediately shoot when he rounded the keeper.
While Sanchez was clearly at fault for this, to say the Red Devils were just unlucky would be wildly unfair on the Magpies. It still took the desire of their defence to sprint back on to the line and throw themselves at the ball to block the Chilean’s effort. More generally, it took the organisation of a Lascelles-martialled defence and an exceptional debut performance from on-loan goalkeeper Martin Dubravka to keep the visitors at bay.
Defensive heroics aside, the man-of-the-match performance of Jonjo Shelvey is what could really be the turning point in the team’s season. A midfielder who has always shown rays of talent only to be marred by disciplinary issues or accusations of laziness, Shelvey gave the best performance of his Newcastle career.
Not only was his majestic array of passing on display for all to enjoy, but what really impressed was his mature decision-making and his willing to follow runners from midfield, thereby relieving pressure on the back four when necessary. If Jack Wilshere is being talked of for Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad, Shelvey must surely be in contention as well if he keeps up this level of application and creativity.
So, is it all sunshine and rainbows instead of fog on the banks of the Tyne?
Well, not exactly. The attacking options of Joselu and Dwight Gayle are still glaring weaknesses, with Gayle offering nothing as a target-man and his Spanish colleague regularly showing his inability to finish this season. Ayoze Perez seemed to offer very little apart from a first-half shot which fizzed past David De Gea’s post, and Chelsea loanee Kenedy seemed completely ineffectual in the second half.
With a trip to Bournemouth next on the fixture list, a team only three points ahead in the table, it’s imperative that the team puts together a string of positive results. They have often played fairly well this season, only for all the hard work to be undone by letting in one goal due to a lapse in concentration or a moment of genuine magic, something which is severely lacking in their own attacking ranks.
The defeat of Manchester United showed the Magpies are capable of scrapping for results, but if this momentum is not sustained then an immediate return to the Championship is a very real possibility.
Photograph: SteHLiverpool via Flickr