Manchester United got back to winning ways, and heaped further misery on former captain Steve Bruce, winning 3-1 at home to Newcastle United.
Despite a first half scare, when Allan Saint-Maximin equalised for Newcastle after Marcus Rashford had put the hosts ahead, there was to be no further disappointment thanks to second half goals from Daniel James and Bruno Fernandes.
With Manchester City, Wet Ham, and Leicester all winning earlier in the day the pressure was on Manchester United to pick up all three points to keep the pressure on leaders City, and to stay ahead of the chasing pack.
For Newcastle, their run of terrible form has coincided with an uptick from Fulham, who are now just three points behind the magpies with 13 matches remaining.
It was far from a vintage Manchester United performance, but after disappointing results at home against Sheffield United and Everton, and away to West Brom, the three points were a welcome return.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was disappointed with the first half performance, but was pleased with how his troops responded after the break.
“We had to up the tempo a little bit, especially in the last third, and I felt we managed to do that. It’s always difficult after an away game in Europe to get going. We’ve had enough games this season, so it took until half-time really, even though we dominated possession and we had a lot of the ball, we couldn’t create too many big opportunities.”
“It was about moving the ball quicker and being a bit cleverer in our positioning. I felt in the second half we found our positions better and [we scored] some good goals.”
Daniel James was handed a rare start, his first since the 6-2 thumping of Leeds in December, and staked a claim to be involved from the beginning more often.
“He never disappeared, he’s been working hard behind the scenes, he’s always been available. He’s always a player that you can use in a few different positions with his energy and pace. He’s learning the game and I’m very happy for him. We’ve worked with him. We try to help everyone. Of course, Dan came from the Championship up to Man United and if you hit a few goals in your first few games, it’s bound to take some energy away from you, all those headlines and media attention. But he’s knuckled down and he’s really worked hard to get back to full fitness and maybe more so [to build] confidence, to believe in himself. That’s the main thing, to come past that little doubt, and now he knows he’s a good player,” added the manager.
17 year old Shole Shoretire made his first-team debut, coming on for Marcus Rashford in the 89th minute. No matter where his career takes him from this point, the youngster will always remember coming on at Old Trafford for his Premier League debut.
“Yeah, of course, and he’s going to play many games for us if he keeps doing what he’s doing. He’s training really well, good boy with a good head on him and hopefully he’ll have a good career with us,” commented Solskjaer on Shoretire’s big moment.
However, in a somewhat baffling move, veteran Juan Mata was brought on at the same time as Shoretire, giving the Spaniard only a few minutes on the pitch with the game already over as a contest at 3-1.
When Bruno Fernandes converted his 75th minute penalty to extend the lead to two goals, surely this would have been the time to bring Mata on.
Not only as the midfielder seeks to impress and find minutes to build his fitness, but with a string of important games in March, keeping the squad fresh by utilising players on the bench should be a high priority.
It perhaps speaks to Solskjaer’s lack of faith in his defence that the Norwegian felt the team may need to score more goals in the final 15 minutes.
Playing almost the entire 90 minutes won’t have disappointed James, who feels he is back to the player that burst onto the scene when he arrived at Old Trafford with a goal-den touch.
“When you’re not playing as much, it’s not a time to relax and just think ‘I’m not going to play’. It’s a time to learn, reflect on things to say why you’re not playing and just keep working hard in training and the gaffer told me ‘You’re going to get your chance soon’ and I just stayed ready for that.”
“I think there was a moment last season that maybe I wasn’t performing as well as I wanted to. I think this season I just wanted to reflect on that as much as I can, doing everything I can to reflect on my games, and yeah I’ve just been working on the training ground as hard as I can.”
“I think I kind of lost my way a bit. I wasn’t playing the same as I did at the start of last season, so that’s what I had to look at, analysis, stuff like that. I’ve got the right people around me to talk me through that and, as I said, I’ve been working with coaches on the training ground to try and get me back to myself and I’d like to think that I’ve got there,” said James.
After being handed a start, James was pleased to repay the faith shown in him by the manager, adding “I had one [in the] first half where the touch got away from me a bit and I knew I was going to get that chance again, because we kept working the sides and that’s where the space was, and obviously Nemanja played that ball… I think Bruno will want the assist from that and I’ll give him it! When I just touched it, it was all about just getting it on target and thankfully it went in.”
United take a 4-0 lead into their Europa League second-leg match with Real Sociedad and should use this match as an opportunity to rest most of the first team squad ahead of a showdown with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge next Sunday.