Manchester United continued their winning run under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær with a battling 2-0 victory at St James’ Park.
Goals from Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford made it twelve points from twelve for the Solskjær, as the Norwegian begins to kickstart his campaign of consideration for the full-time role at Old Trafford in 2019/20.
This was United’s sternest test yet under Solskjær, with Rafa Benitez’s side setting up with two rigid banks of four whilst attempting to hit the Red Devils on the counter, but persistence did indeed pay off as United continued their fine run of form to move within six points of fourth-placed Chelsea.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s perfect start
Four wins from four will have been what Solskjær had been dreaming of prior to being handed the reins at United, but the biggest contrast in this United team is the joy, freedom and outright enthusiasm that this squad is currently playing with compared to the final months of Jose Mourinho’s regime; this contrast must be credited to the work of the Norwegian caretaker.
The rejuvenation of club-record signing Paul Pogba is one Solskjær has been keen to praise the player himself for, but having been benched in Mourinho’s final two league games, as arguably their most talented player, one of Solskjær’s prime objectives arriving at the club was to reinvigorate the Frenchman and get him firing in the United starting XI.
Solskjær has achieved this and more, with United dispatching Cardiff, Huddersfield, Bournemouth and now Newcastle in the process, admittedly a feat achieved by all of this year’s top six, yet firmer challenges, such as Spurs away next week, are certainly on the horizon for the Norwegian and his newly galvanised squad.
Marcus Rashford: United’s mercurial number nine
A goal and an assist for Rashford on Wednesday against Newcastle paints only a fraction of the progress that the 21-year-old striker has made under Solskjær since his arrival at Old Trafford, displacing Belgian Lukaku from returning to the starting XI and justifying his manager’s decision in the process.
Rashford’s bullet of a free-kick was simply too much for Martin Dubravka to deal with between the sticks for Newcastle, as Lukaku’s lightning reactions prodded the ball home after a fumbled rebound from the Slovakian keeper.
The Englishman is beginning to show signs that he has the ability to hold down a starting berth in this United team, with a cool, calm finish for United’s second of the night illustrating his fine finishing under pressure having been slid through by Alexis Sanchez.
United fans will be ecstatic to see a youth-product being given the chance to shine in the starting line-up, and under the tutelage of Solskjær, it merely remains to be seen as to just how far Rashford can go in 2019.
Does Rafa Benitez have a future at Newcastle?
Spaniard Benitez was tight-lipped when asked by Sky Sports reporter Geoff Shreeves if he expected the club to be active in the January window, and despite stating he was speaking with Newcastle’s managing director, Lee Charnley, “every day”, it is highly unlikely the Tyneside outfit will spend a penny in the window.
Benitez stated earlier this season it would be “a miracle” if Newcastle remained a Premier League side for 2019/20, and whilst his comments initially held an air of exaggeration, it would now appear he was not far off the mark.
Newcastle sit 15th in the table with four wins from 21 Premier League games, and if Benitez’s side are to remain a top-flight side for the upcoming campaign, one senses it will be a case of three sides being outright worse than Newcastle, as opposed to the Toon army being far better than any other three.
Jonjo Shelvey shows glimpses of class
As Newcastle chased the game under the lights at St James’ Park, a brief moment of sheer and deft beauty came from the boot of Jonjo Shelvey, an, at times, much-maligned figure known for his lack of discipline and reliability.
Shelvey collected the ball just inside the United half, and launched a near-perfect through-ball with the outside of his foot to find Ayoze Perez, who should’ve done better to get Newcastle back in the game.
Shelvey, 26, has six caps for the England seniors, but has not been involved with the squad since 2015, displaced by younger, more talented players coming through the ranks. It remains to be seen if he could force himself back into Southgate’s squad, but yet again on Wednesday night, we were reminded that this is a player of raw ability, though perhaps lacking consistency to go right to the very top.