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Despite an early scare, falling behind to Dwight Gayle's first Premier League goal of the season, Manchester United put on a confident display at Old Trafford as they dispatched Newcastle United 4-1 to cement second place in the table.

It was a fine attacking performance from the Red Devils, but the overriding positive was the return from injury of £89million man Paul Pogba, who assisted the equaliser for Anthony Martial and scored the third, clocking 69 minutes and named man of the match.

Rafa Benítez took his well-drilled Magpies to the red side of Manchester hoping to become the first manager to record victories over the 20-time champions with three different teams, but the Spanish tactician will have to wait a little longer to get a crack at earning that particular accolade.

The first half was an intriguing encounter, with Newcastle more than holding their own for long spells, but United took control in the second period as Zlatan Ibrahimović retuned from his ACL injury to mark an encouraging evening for the home side under the Old Trafford lights.

Here are the five tactical observations we picked up from the game.

Pogba is Manchester United's everything

There was little doubt about it beforehand; there is absolutely none now: Pogba is far and away United's most important player. Despite being sidelined with a hamstring injury since late-September, the Frenchman instantly had United clicking upon his return, linking midfield and attack, producing inspired pieces of skill in final third and proving decisive with a goal and an assist.

Starting alongside Nemanja Matić in one of the deep midfield roles in United's 4-2-3-1 formation, the former Juventus star initially found little space to move into high up the pitch, stifled by Newcastle's low block and contenting himself with spraying passes around midfield.

But as the game progressed, Pogba was able to break forward almost at will, roaming wherever he saw fit and looking every bit the reliable, creative influence United have been crying out for since he's been out.

Newcastle's counters kept United honest

Particularly in the first half, Newcastle looked to break from their low block to catch United on the counter, bursting down the flanks into the spaces vacated by full-backs Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia.

This was how they broke the deadlock on 14 minutes, as American flyer DeAndre Yedlin utilised his searing pace to expose the home side's defensive disorganisation, pulling back for Gayle to confidently slot home beyond David de Gea, aided by a slip from Swedish centre-back Victor Lindelöf in his first Premier League start.

Although the final score was one-sided and the second half relatively uncompetitive, Newcastle's own sense of adventure was evidenced by the fact they took 12 shots to United's 16, and landed five on target to the home side's seven; they were no shrinking violets and their speed on the counter meant United always had to be mindful of turnovers.

United find their best front-three combination

José Mourinho elected to start with Marcus Rashford, Lukaku and Martial together for the first time, a combination that United fans have been longing to see for most of the season.

And it worked. With Rashford and Martial looking to commit their opposing full-backs, Lukaku playing on the shoulder of the Magpies' backline and Juan Mata in behind as a scheming No.10, the Red Devils had excellent balance in attack, and the way the advanced trio were able to interchange positions and combine means United were more unpredictable than they have been at any point this term.

With their pace, creativity and lethal finishing, a front three of Rashford, Martial and Lukaku should become United's staple from here on.

Newcastle's defensive shape eroded

Benítez made a bold move in deciding to play two strikers, sending his side out in a 4-4-2 formation, rather than, as most sides visiting Old Trafford tend to, utilising a lone frontman and packing the midfield.

But, despite the additional attacking option, Newcastle‘s defensive shape, with two distinct lines of four defending in a low block, worked well for the first 30 to 40 minutes, keeping United in front of them and limiting space in behind.

The spacing between the defenders was on point, a credit to the former Real Madrid and Liverpool manager's work on the training field, and the midfield, Jonjo Shelvey in particular, pressed well when United looked to advance.

But as time wore on, the low block only invited United on, ceding territory to a side rejuvenated by the return of their most creative player.

The movement of Rashford, Martial and Lukaku began to pull the Newcastle back four apart, disrupting their spacing and creating lanes for breaking midfielders to burst into, as was the case for Pogba's close-range goal.

Lindelöf and Smalling an unconvincing pair

It was an overwhelmingly positive night's work for United, but it was not without caveats.

Lindelöf was handed a first Premier League start since his £31million summer move from Benfica, fresh off the back of an impressive defensive display for Sweden in there World Cup qualification play-off triumph over Italy, paired in central defence with Chris Smalling.

And the duo failed to convince defensively, despite some tidy passes from Lindelöf and a goal from the England international.

For the Newcastle goal, Lindelöf lost his footing, slipping on the turf to present Gayle with a free shot at goal, something that can happen to any player. But his positioning, particularly when dealing with balls from wide, was consistently questionable, something that was an issue during his time in Lisbon.

Smalling, too, has struggled for consistency of late and lacks the decision-making skills of a truly top-class defender. When putting the two together, they didn't appear to match up well and were too easily pulled around by the movement of Newcastle‘s frontmen.


Manchester United

Premier League