A Wayne Rooney-inspired Manchester United returned to winning ways in style, with a 3-1 victory over Newcastle United at Old Trafford on Boxing Day. Louis van Gaal’s men showed no ill effects from their run of six straight wins being ended by Aston Villa on Saturday, as Rooney struck twice in the opening half before setting up Robin van Persie for a third after the break.
It was close to being as good as Manchester United have performed all season, with the team largely fulfilling Van Gaal’s desire to match their impressive results with more dominant performances. Newcastle, perhaps trying to match the success of Villa in frustrating Manchester United, went with an unfamiliar 3-4-1-2 formation to match up against their opponents. While it was a fairly bright start by Alan Pardew’s men, the contest shifted decisively toward the hosts once Rooney finished off a brilliantly incisive counter-attack that he started and which also involved Juan Mata and Radamel Falcao midway through the opening half.
The same trio was involved in the 36th minute when Manchester United again capitalized on a Newcastle turnover and Mata found Rooney to side-foot home with conviction. Rooney, again starting in the center of midfield, was instrumental throughout. And, while he couldn’t quite muster a hat-trick, he did play a pivotal role in his team’s third goal eight minutes after the restart. It was his perfect chipped pass over a caught out Newcastle defense that allowed Van Persie to head down and into the corner of the net. Manchester United could play out much of the second half in complete comfort, with a late penalty converted by Papiss Cisse after a foul by Phil Jones on Jack Colback perhaps irritating Van Gaal but not doing anything to alter the outcome.
The victory strengthens Manchester United’s grasp on third place in the Premier League thanks to West Ham’s loss earlier in the day. They now hold a three point advantage over fourth-placed Southampton. Meanwhile, Newcastle continue to head back in the other direction. Their strong run of form to move up the table is fading quickly from sight after what was their fourth successive defeat in all competitions. Although they showed more intensity than in recent weeks, Newcastle still lacked a real purpose about their play and Pardew will now be desperate for an improvement when Everton visit St James’ Park on Sunday.
Pardew tried to inject some fresh impetus, not just with a change in formation, but by handing a first Premier League start to 17-year-old striker Adam Armstrong. The youngster created a decent opening in the early going, too, when getting down the side of Jonny Evans and producing a chip back into the danger zone that Ayoze Perez failed to make contact with. Newcastle will feel aggrieved they didn’t have a penalty, too, when Mata, admittedly and unwittingly, clipped the heels of Yoan Gouffran.
By that point there were signs that Manchester United were starting to discover their rhythm and find the holes in their opponents’ newly introduced system. Van Persie scampered in behind the defense and rounded young goalkeeper Jak Alnwick, but could only find the side netting. In the 23rd minute, they were more clinical. Armstrong’s blocked shot led to the kind of incisive break that was so commonplace during the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson. Rooney’s pass started it, and the movement of Falcao and Van Persie was key in opening up the space for the Colombian striker to square on the stretch for Rooney to finish.
The intelligence and enthusiasm of Falcao’s movement opened up space for both himself and his teammates throughout the first half. And the man on loan from Monaco came close to getting his second goal in a week when he glanced a cross from Ashley Young past the post. He was involved once more as Manchester United deservedly doubled their lead. His desire saw him win the ball back and, with Newcastle’s defense at sea, Mata found Rooney for his eighth goal of the season. Dictating play in midfield and getting forward to score, there was certainly a touch of the Paul Scholes about Rooney’s performance as he continues to impress in a deeper role.
Often undervalued, Rooney’s passing range was in form to put the result beyond any doubt at the start of the second half. Allowed too much space, his pass was right onto the head of Van Persie to nod pass Alnwick. Twice the man closing in on Manchester United’s all-time scoring record came close to getting a third for himself, but, after having a shot blocked, his free-kick dropped onto the roof of the net.
The last 30 minutes was played at testimonial pace, which, given his demands for perfection, may anger Van Gaal, especially given Cisse’s well-struck penalty three minutes from time. But it was still close to an ideal way to start a festive trio of fixtures that will also see Manchester United visit Tottenham on Sunday and then Stoke City on New Year’s Day.