Manchester United have new roles for three FA Cup final starters after Newcastle win

United's win against Newcastle gave Ten Hag some FA Cup final clues -Credit:2024 Manchester United FC
United's win against Newcastle gave Ten Hag some FA Cup final clues -Credit:2024 Manchester United FC

Manchester United kept alive their hopes of qualifying for Europe through their league position by beating Newcastle 3-2 in an entertaining game at Old Trafford.

United took the lead through Kobbie Mainoo in the first half. Amad's pass was intended for Bruno Fernandes but found Mainoo in acres of space inside the penalty area and the academy graduate finished well.

Newcastle had their chances in the game and they equalised through Anthony Gordon, who finished smartly from a Jacob Murphy cross. Parity lasted only eight minutes before Amad thrashed in an unstoppable left-footed half-volley to put United back in front.

The victory looked to be sealed when Rasmus Hojlund came off the bench to score a third, narrowing a right-footed drive past the despairing Martin Dubravka, and although Lewis Hall got one back in injury time United held on.

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Fernandes finds cup final role

The official reason for Hojlund's absence was that it was a case of managing his workload, but the 21-year-old was left out after 10 successive starts while Alejandro Garnacho was starting for the 36th successive match.

With Anthony Martial's Manchester United career effectively over it left Ten Hag without a striker and he turned to Fernandes to fill the void. The role as a false nine worked well a couple of years after the Portuguese was played there by Ralf Rangnick, in a defeat to Manchester City and a draw with Leicester.

Fernandes dropped into the space away from the centre-backs to collect the ball and clip a pass in to create a chance for Garnacho in the first half and found the space in those areas well. One diagonal pass put Amad into space late in the first half.

Hojlund has had his moments this season but he has gone off the boil recently and with Martial still absent and Marcus Rashford only fit enough for the bench, some creative thinking was required. The attack clicked to the extent that it's a system worth pursuing against Brighton and Manchester City.

Martinez is back

When Lisandro Martinez went to warm-up for the first time just before the break he got a thunderous reception from the Stretford End, one only bettered when he came on for the final eight minutes of the game.

How United have missed the Argentine this season. The centre-back has been fit enough to start just nine games in all competitions. His defensive quality and leadership have been missed and shortly after coming on he snapped into a challenge to take the ball off Alexander Isak. Within seconds Hojlund had put the game to bed.

Martinez could do with a longer run out against Brighton at the weekend but he has to be one of the first names on the teamsheet for the FA Cup final. Ten Hag's team for that game has taken shape this week, with Fernandes putting himself in contention to play as a false nine, Martinez looking fit to start and Sofyan Amrabat nailing down a midfield role.

Amrabat and Casemiro

United saw the two sides of Amrabat inside the first 10 minutes. First, he took too long on the ball in midfield and was dispossessed and long-term it seems clear he just doesn't quite have the quality in possession to figure in the plans.

What he is is a good holding midfielder and after Casemiro had put his team in trouble with a weak pass Amrabat got back well to fill the space and executed a superb sliding tackle to stop Gordon in the box. His second-half block at 1-1 to deflect Isak's shot onto the bar was even better.

Casemiro's early mistake seemed to suggest the pattern of his poor performances was continuing, but the experienced Brazilian responded to that and had his best game as a centre-back in this recent run. His sliding tackle on Gordon after Amrabat had been dispossessed this time was vital and his goalline clearance from Dan Burn showed his experience in reading the game.

Why Ten Hag wanted Onana

A year ago Ten Hag set his sights on Andre Onana having accepted that David de Gea was never going to be able to cut it as the kind of goalkeeper he wanted. De Gea didn't have the quality with the ball at his feet or the aggressive positioning to allow the defence to play a high line.

Onana does have those skills but they have only rarely been seen. Injuries in defence are a major reason for the distrust of playing out from the back, but the goalkeeper's distribution has steadily got worse as the season has gone on. Almost every kick now goes downfield and is turned into a 50-50 ball.

Playing out from the back might give supporters the odd palpitation but there is a reason modern managers like it. It can bait a press and help you play through a team and it allows you to keep possession as well. The alternative is to lump it forward and risk losing the ball. For two games in a row Onana and United have seen the danger with that.

Arsenal's goal might have been a result of Casemiro's positioning but it also came from an aimless Onana clearance. Ditto Newcastle's equaliser just after half-time. Within seconds of Scott McTominay losing the battle for the aerial ball, Gordon was finishing from six yards out.

Onana made big saves against Newcastle and neither of the goals conceded this week were directly his fault, but he was signed to revolutionise the way United play and hasn't done that enough in his first season at the club.

European picture

United's battle for a place in the Europa Conference League will go down to the final day of the season. That isn't a sentence I expected to write at the start of the campaign but it gives them something to play for at Brighton on Sunday.

The Conference League might not be the competition this team aspires to play in, but the club needs the money from European football and from more games at Old Trafford.

To secure seventh they will need to better Newcastle's result at Brentford. On this evidence that is certainly doable.