The roars from the loudest fans to visit Old Trafford this season were justified. Fifteen minutes into the Premier League encounter, Newcastle United were taking the game to Manchester United and looked a bigger threat.
Steve Bruce’s rejuvenated side, who’d won five of their previous eight games and who’d triumphed in the reverse fixture at St James’ Park, found themselves up against feeble rather than vengeful looking opponents.
Matty Longstaff, who scored that day, did the same 17 minutes into the match after Fred lost the ball in midfield and shambolic defending helped him along the way.
“He’s one of our own,” chanted the 3,000 Geordies of the goalscorer. “Sacked in the morning,” they added for Solskjaer.
Not so fast, since Newcastle would repay the errors in spades, just as they did last season. Then, with Jose Mourinho’s job under pressure, they had quickly gone ahead at Old Trafford in the equivalent game, before losing 3-2.
These things happen at modern day Manchester United, when fans have little idea what’s to come. Where they can beat the champions away and lose to the bottom team weeks later. It has been an inconsistent roller coaster season and it continued as they recovered from the Longstaff goal to score four times for the first time in the league since the opening day against Chelsea.
At the other end, Manchester United haven’t kept a clean sheet in 14 league games since a September win against Leicester City, but they’re also unbeaten at home since August. They also haven’t been beaten at home on Boxing Day since 1978 and responded well to the setback.
It was much needed after Sunday’s dreadful defeat at Watford – but the result was soured by an injury to key midfielder Scott McTominay, who left Old Trafford on crutches.
“I don’t know how bad it is,” said Solskjaer after confirming ligament damage. “He played until half-time and I’m not sure if he will be fit for Saturday. The boy has got the biggest heart of the lot. You know when you stiffen up. We'll find out tomorrow how it is.” McTominaywas booked after only 24 seconds
United play at Burnley on Saturday, but at least Paul Pogba is back. Solskjaer was hoping to introduce him little by little as he comes back from injury. He may have little choice but to start his most talented midfielder. The Norwegian already feels that there’s not enough competition for places but those players on the pitch responded well after going behind.
Antony Martial’s shot made it 1-1 after 23 minutes, squeezing the ball between Martin Dubravka and his near post. Twelve minutes later, Schar failed to clear his lines. Mason Greenwood picked the ball up with Marcus Rashford in space to his left. The 18-year-old calmly lashed the ball goalwards from 20 yards and, after a slight deflection off Fernandez, it hit the roof of the net. He’s scored four in five in all competitions – though his coaches don’t think he’s ready to be playing every week yet.
"We know Mason is such a talent,” said his manager. “He is good with both feet, which makes it harder for defenders, he has the technique and he is an exceptional finisher. He is still young and has to learn the game.”
The home side made it 3-1 five minutes before half time, with Marcus Rashford rising superbly to head home a fine, deep cross from Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Rashford has now scored 15 goals this season.
It was four after 50 minutes when Antony Martial flicked the ball over Dubravka. Two goals from just three shots. Martial hit the post, too, and he pressed well throughout. Manchester United are far better with an in-form Martial.
“The key is to give him the ball because he is not going to be running down the channels all day long,” said Solskjaer of Martial. “We need to feed him - the balls have said that themselves. We have to play it forward more and into the front men - it is important for Anthony to touch the ball a lot and to feel like his in the game.”
“We’ve had a horrible 20 minutes before half-time, and just after half-time as well, when we’ve made too many mistakes, and one thing about individual error, you can’t account for it,” said Steve Bruce, who has drawn one and lost ten games on visits to his former club. “You come here, the one thing you can’t do is gift Manchester United and unfortunately, I know it’s Christmas, but we’ve given away more goals in half an hour than we have done in three months.”
Solskjaer’s mood, unsurprisingly, contrasted.
“We’ve done well today,” he beamed. “At 1-0 down obviously you’re not sure, but then all season we’ve had one defeat and we haven’t lost the next one, so the reaction was really good. Today was 10-15 minutes of everything going right. Of course we made mistakes. Today was a good day for us. We made it comfortable. Second half I think both teams were looking at the game in two days’ time.
“I think we’re moulding the group together. We’re finding our identity. We need to know our identity. We can’t wait until next season. We’re not going to win the league this year, but we need to think about winning trophies this year. Burnley will be a different kind of game, you need to roll your sleeves up and take the fight to them.”
United are seventh and, because of the inconsistency of the teams around them, still in contention for a top four finish. It’s a repeat of last season when fourth place and Champions League football was within the grasp of several teams until the end. United were incapable of being consistent enough to make the top four. That consistency is still lacking, but the fans were happy as they left for home in the dreary Mancunian drizzle.