Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s magical reign as Manchester United boss survived its biggest test to date at St James’ Park last night, his second- half substitute Romelu Lukaku scoring with his first touch of the game and helping to write his interim manager into the record books.
United had toiled until the point, in the 63rd minute, when Solskjaer made his inspired decision to throw on the Belgian and Alexis Sanchez, two players who chronically under-achieved under his predecessor Jose Mourinho. Instantly, Lukaku responded with the goal that means Solskjaer becomes just the second manager in the club’s illustrious history to win his first four games in charge — joining the not-inconsiderable figure of Matt Busby in that achievement.
It was a simple goal, Lukaku tapping in from six yards after keeper Martin Dubravka had fumbled Marcus Rashford’s 25-yard free-kick that was aimed straight at him.
Lukaku and Sanchez were both involved when United wrapped up the win after 79 minutes, the pair sparking a ferocious counter-attack. Finally Sanchez moved the ball on to an unmarked Rashford who showed the poise to roll the ball beyond the diving Dubravka .
“You have to be ready as a sub, that’s what the manager asks of me,” said Lukaku. “I knew that the goalkeeper might fumble it, you have to gamble. It’s totally different with the new manager, we are all learning from him, so far so good.”
But, whether good fortune or tactical genius, the manner of the victory and Solskjaer’s substitutions, simply under-scored the growing feeling among United fans that Solskjaer has that “special” quality that used to be, long ago, associated with Mourinho.
Indeed last night, the Solskjaer era had faced its first real test after a benign start that had brought comfortable victories over Cardiff, Huddersfield and Bournemouth.
The league table might not suggest there is a great degree of difficulty in facing a Newcastle side flirting dangerously with the wrong end of the table but St James’ Park, under floodlights at the end of a busy holiday period, was not going to be as straightforward as his opening games.
It especially looked that way when Rafa Benitez’s side enjoyed a purple patch midway through the first half. Christian Atsu was the main beneficiary of the sluggishness of the recalled Antonio Valencia, twice racing clear before shooting straight at de Gea.
By the time Phil Jones contributed to the uncertainty by being caught in possession just outside his area — an error for which he atoned with a beautifully-timed tackle on Salomon Rondon — Solskjaer was being given a painful reminder of how much work needs to be done defensively.
Yet, as the opening three games under the Norwegian have proved, there is as much positivity in United’s forward play these days as there are concerns about their defensive capabilities.
Paul Pogba, involved in seven goals as scorer or with an assist since Solskjaer’s arrival, was again the fulcrum for United’s attackers.
After just three minutes, the Frenchman tested Dubravka at his near-post with a low strike that presented the home keeper with a comfortable save, Anthony Martial threatened down the same, left flank, this time shooting into the side-netting, before Rashford capitalised on hesitation in the defence and almost steered the ball home with Martial lobbing a follow-up onto the roof of the net.
Pogba also shot just wide from the edge of the area in what was becoming an open, decent contest, to match the predictably decent atmosphere.
If Rondon had succeeded in heading in a difficult chance from six yards, from Andre Yedlin’s 34th minute cross, that atmosphere would have become even more fervent although the half-time whistle arrived with the game finely poised.
United had Alexis, out since November as he missed out on the dog days of the Mourinho reign, on the bench and, according to his manager, itching to get back into action.
And, as the second half opened, the visitors again looked dangerous as Rashford’s skill allowed him to cut in from the right-hand by-line before flashing a shot disappointingly across the face of goal. The England forward’s frustrated reaction told its own story.
Newcastle were quickly forced into a reshuffle after Mohamed Diame failed to shake off the effects of a first half injury and Jonjo Shelvey came on to try and add some attacking impetus to his side.
It seemed to work — Atsu surging forward and shooting just wide, Ayoze Perez denied only by Luke Shaw’s block, Shelvey shooting at de Gea and the home crowd shouting for a penalty after Atsu’s run was stopped by Victor Lindelof.
By the 63rd minute, Solskjaer had seen enough and made the double substitution that proved so inspirational, with Rashford getting on the scoresheet to seal the deal.
“They were difficult to break down and it took longer than we would have liked,” said Rashford. “We had to keep working to get three points. I want to improve my finishing.” Had Pogba not found the side-netting, instead of the goal, from a tight angle after rounding the keeper deep in injury-time, it might have been an even more emphatic victory.
NEWCASTLE (5-3-1-1): Dubravka 5; Yedlin 5, Schar 5 (Muto 80), Lascelles 6, Dummett 6, Ritchie 5; Hayden 6, Diame 6 (Shelvey 52, 6), Atsu 8; Perez 7 (Kenedy 69, 6); Rondon 6. Subs (not used) Manquillo, Lejeune, Joselu, Woodman.
MAN UNITED (4-2-3-1): De Gea 7; Valencia 5, Lindelof 5, Jones 5, Shaw 7; Herrera 6, Matic 7; Mata 7 (Sanchez 63, 6), Pogba 7, Martial 6 (Lukaku 63, 7); Rashford 8 (Lingard 86). Subs (not used) Fred, Young, Romero, Darmian.
Referee: A Marriner 7