Ole Gunnar Solskjær knows a thing or three about impact substitutions but even Manchester United’s former supersub extraordinaire must have been pleasantly surprised to see Romelu Lukaku step off the bench and score with his first touch.
Until the Belgian opened the scoring within seconds of replacing Anthony Martial, Solskjær had seemed outwitted by Rafael Benítez’s contain-and-counter tactics but by the end of a bitterly cold Tyneside night Marcus Rashford had added a second to make it four wins out of four for José Mourinho’s replacement.
If Manchester United’s flight to the warmth of Dubai on Saturday evening for a mid-season training break should be a happy one, Newcastle United remain far too close to the relegation zone for comfort.
“There’s only one United and It’s NUFC,” declared a giant banner stretching almost the full width of the Gallowgate End.
If it represented a timely reminder that the team from Old Trafford do not have a monopoly on the word “United” after all, the bad news for Rafael Benítez’s team was that, emotionally at least, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side arrived in seemingly reunified mood.
Three wins and 12 goals since the Norwegian took over from Mourinho had born testament to the new-found sense of creative liberation suddenly suffusing this Manchester United side.
As the full-backs Anthony Valencia and Luke Shaw pushed forward against Benítez’s five-man defence and Martin Dubravka scrambled an awkward early Rashford shot to safety, it felt as if it might be a long night for Newcastle.
Things certainly appeared to have changed since the last time Solskjær patrolled the away technical area here in the spring of 2014; back then Alan Pardew was in charge of a home team whose 3-0 win confirmed Cardiff’s relegation from the Premier League.
Not that Mourinho’s interim successor could afford to relax as he surveyed a backline still to keep a clean sheet under his charge. Indeed, Manchester United could easily have conceded another goal when Phil Jones’s ill-advised back pass played Salomón Rondón onside and the hitherto noisy travelling fans congregated high in the Leazes End temporarily fell silent.
In the end Jones recovered superbly to rescue the situation and within seconds Martial had nearly scored at the end of a high-speed counterattack, but Benítez had a glimmer of optimism to cling to.
Granted only Dubravka’s astute positioning prevented Rashford from scoring after Jamaal Lascelles and Fabian Schär collided in their own area, and Paul Pogba regularly advanced down the inside-left channel with destructive intent, but the visitors’ final ball was not quite coming off.
Neither was Newcastle’s but at least Christian Atsu used his pace to good effect down the home left, exploiting the space often let by Valencia’s swashbuckling attacking advances. The only problem was that, when presented with two half chances, Atsu could only direct the first shot straight at De Gea and send the less than perfectly controlled second flashing across the face of goal.
Another half chance arrived when Rondón connected with a decent Atsu cross but although Newcastle’s lone forward had succeeded in fazing Jones and Victor Lindelöf, on this occasion at least Jones’s presence seemed to restrict his leap. As the resultant header flew harmlessly over the bar some Newcastle fans speculated as to whether the watching Alan Shearer would have scored in the same situation.
He quite possibly would have done but at least Rondón was giving Solskjær’s defenders reason to curb their attacking inclinations. That mattered; particularly as, at the other end, Lascelles’s style had also been cramped, albeit for different reasons. An unusually animated Benítez was highly displeased with some of the referee Andre Marriner’s decisions but he could hardly argue with the yellow card brandished after Lascelles fouled Ander Herrera. If left Newcastle’s captain walking a disciplinary tightrope and this high-wire act could easily have ended in tears when a subsequent challenge on Pogba sent the France World Cup-winner crashing. Marriner adjudged that intervention to be fair and he was surely correct but another official could conceivably have come to an alternative conclusion.
Even so Benítez had cause for quiet satisfaction at the interval. The increasingly urgent little chats Solskjær and his assistant, Mike Phelan, had been holding with Juan Mata and company during breaks in play emphasised that Manchester United had still to settle into any sort of fluent passing groove.
Instead Newcastle had succeeded in denying their guests room for fluid attacking manoeuvre and delighted in shutting off the angles the visitors needed to weave the bewitching geometrical passing patterns required to bewilder Lascelles and friends.
An unlikely hero in this home effort was Matt Ritchie. Newcastle’s right wing turned left wing-back proved to be intelligence and industry personified as he worked to restrict the threat from Valencia and Juan Mata.
Yet this was very much a collective home effort, a masterclass in the art of assiduous closing down and as his side’s frustration grew, Solskjær can only have hoped that the enforced switch which saw Mo Diamé limp off to be replaced by Jonjo Shelvey – newly recovered from injury – would disrupt Benítez’s gameplan.
As it transpired Shelvey briefly raised Newcastle’s game. After seeing the would be England midfielder bisect his defence courtesy of a wonderful pass to Ayzoe Perez dispatched with the outside of his right foot, the Norwegian – who had Luke Shaw to thank for barring Perez’s path to goal – decided the time had come for a double substitution.
On trotted Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez, the latter making his first appearance since pulling a hamstring in November. Within a minute Lukaku had scored. When Dubravka uncharacteristically spilled Rashford’s dipping, 25-yard free-kick the Belgian centre-forward reacted with alacrity, responding faster than Lascelles to drive the rebound over the line from six yards.
All that remained was for an unmarked Rashford to slide a shot through Dubravka’s legs at the end of a move which, appropriately, he had started himself. After playing in Lukaku the Belgian found Sánchez who marked his return with a defender disorientating pass which not only picked out Rashford but also rekindled hopes of a top-four finish.