A point against Newcastle is not the sackable offence it was under old management. Cristiano Ronaldo may distract further from frustration.
If ever a bench screamed ‘last few days of the January or summer transfer window and look what you’re forcing me to deal with,’ it was the nine players Erik ten Hag named on stand-by against Newcastle.
Alejandro Garnacho, Zidane Iqbal and Facundo Pellistri have never started a Premier League game. Kobbie Mainoo sounds like a nominatively deterministic Football Manager regen. Anthony Elanga has shown immense promise but remains as unreliable as any ordinary 20-year-old should. Tyrell Malacia and Victor Lindelof could hardly be counted on to provide attacking inspiration to divert the inexorable path towards a goalless draw. Nor, most likely, can Tom Heaton.
It fell squarely upon the recently knackered shoulders of Marcus Rashford to separate Man Utd and Newcastle, to break the deadlock, to settle the dispute.
To his credit, the forward was central to the two biggest chances of the second half and, for the hosts, perhaps of the entire match. But as brilliant as his skill, technique and awareness had to be to carve out something of a chance for Fred to skew wide of an open goal under pressure, Rashford planted a presentable header in almost exactly the same place as stoppage time ate away.
It was an opportunity met with a predictable response: Cristiano Ronaldo would have scored that. But the Portuguese was ineffective in his 71 minutes before being replaced by Rashford, scoring two disallowed goals in quick and fairly obvious succession, before his only shot of the game went much the way of the other 23 conjured by either side.
Ronaldo’s reaction will dominate the news cycle until the visit of Tottenham in midweek and Ten Hag might welcome that distraction after an underwhelming performance delivered a functional point.
There needs to be some recalibration with regard to results against Newcastle. This is not the Steve Bruce iteration and so a draw at home to them, while not ideal, is far from disastrous. Eddie Howe’s team pushed Manchester City to their limits and only succumbed to Liverpool at Anfield in stoppage-time in their solitary defeat so far this season.
The Magpies also scored nine goals in their previous two games, including putting five past the side which beat Man Utd themselves 4-0 a few months ago. Everyone draws with Newcastle and it is largely absolutely fine.
Those fine margins make it difficult to draw many conclusions. On the one hand, Man Utd could have had a penalty at various stages; they certainly appealed for them. They had more chances overall and restricted a very good Newcastle to one shot in the last 42 minutes. Lisandro Martinez continues to be both small and good.
But on the other, Joelinton hit the crossbar and post, while all £160m or so of Antony and Jadon Sancho could not get the better of Kieran Trippier, Dan Burn or Matt Targett.
The absence of Christian Eriksen was sorely felt. Man Utd missed his ball progression from deep, that patient build-up to knit moves together and find the passes no-one else in this squad can. Fred is many things but a tempo-setting midfield controller is not one of them.
That he remains an integral part of this team sums up the issue. Despite the millions spent by a succession of managers to construct this squad, it is a shallow jumble that cannot be fixed with a few training sessions or transfer windows. It will take time and patience. Progress is being made; that much is clear just from watching a Man Utd side which doesn’t cower in possession and can defend relatively competently. But it was never going to be linear and this was a perfectly acceptable step sideways.
But those substitutes. Good lord. No wonder Ten Hag only called on one of them. Only by naming an extra goalkeeper or not filling the bench completely could the manager have underlined his point more emphatically. He will hope the dormant plea for investment is still ringing after the World Cup.