So much for Erik ten Hag’s belief that Manchester United are heading in the right direction. They instead veered out of the Carabao Cup, the defence of their first trophy in six years ending swiftly and ignominiously, as their season goes off the rails. Given their wretched form, this scarcely counted as a cup shock but United were shocking nonetheless. Newcastle did not advance into the quarter-finals as much as stormed into them.
The fans who saw their side beaten by the other United at Wembley in last season’s final chorused about a return to the national stadium. More often, however, they serenaded Ten Hag with chants of “sacked in the morning”. And if the Newcastle supporters are scarcely impartial and their predictions will be unfounded, it was nevertheless the sound of crisis enveloping Old Trafford.
Manchester United were abysmal, even by their own standards. Caught in possession for Newcastle’s first and third, Ten Hag’s £400m starting 11 were outrun, outworked, out-passed and outclassed. They looked like an insipid assortment of individuals, Newcastle a team far greater than the sum of some relatively limited parts. They nevertheless displayed the characteristics, the work ethic and unity, the counter-attacking verve and the defensive resilience, so sadly lacking in their hosts.
This was United’s eighth defeat of the season and a fifth at home. If they extended their habit of losing to all the better teams they encounter, this should have been the ideal time to face Newcastle: depleted by injuries and Sandro Tonali’s suspension, making eight changes, some of their starters might not even figure in their second XI when everyone is fit. It was arguably the weakest side Eddie Howe had named since Newcastle started spending in January 2022. It became one of the great days in their recent history: only Yohan Cabaye had scored in a Newcastle victory at Old Trafford in the last five decades until Miguel Almiron, Lewis Hall and Joe Willock struck as a glorified reserve side ran riot. For the Tynesiders, a biggest win at Old Trafford since 1930 was the ideal antidote to the host of tame cup exits in the Mike Ashley years.
Even with their attention on other competitions, Howe’s side have done a Manchester derby, eliminating first the Treble winners City and then the Carabao Cup holders United. If Newcastle win a first major trophy since 1969, they will have done it the hard way. And yet, with Arsenal and Tottenham also out, the opportunity to end a long wait beckons.
While Manchester United were disjointed and disappointing, Newcastle’s prowess was testament to Howe’s ability to organise and galvanise. There was a makeshift look to a centre-back partnership of Paul Dummett and Emil Krafth, but they helped keep a clean sheet. Either side of them, Howe’s summer investment in young full-backs reaped a dividend: Tino Livramento made the first goal, Lewis Hall scored the second. Their performance was littered with outstanding displays, whether Willock or Joelinton, Almiron or Livramento.
Newcastle ensured injuries were no impediment to their progress. Indeed, their latest arguably helped them. Matt Targett started, pressed into emergency service in midfield, and limped off after three minutes. Enter Almiron, after the briefest of rests. The Paraguayan’s presence on the pitch was a consequence of misfortune, his goal a product of brilliance. Having won the ball from Alejandro Garnacho, Livramento embarked on a barnstorming solo run, carrying the ball 60 yards and showing the presence of mind to pick out Almiron.
He, in turn, found the far corner of Andre Onana’s net. The goalkeeper was beaten by the second shot on target, too, and if that felt predictable, he looked unsighted when Hall latched on to Harry Maguire’s header to volley in. After a troubled full debut for the club against City in the previous round, the on-loan Chelsea player marked his second with the first goal for the team his northern father made him support as a boy in Slough.
Then Willock capped his first start of the season with a classy goal. After Joelinton dispossessed Sofyan Amrabat, the midfielder weaved his way forward and placed a shot beyond Onana.
Amrabat had been introduced at half-time. If Ten Hag’s decision to make seven changes suggested faith in his squad, recalling Casemiro ought to have strengthened the side. It was, though, another chastening day for the Brazilian, substituted at the break along with Diogo Dalot, who had been tormented by Almiron.
Another midfielder could have departed still sooner. The clumsy Hannibal Mejbri could have collected two cautions in the first 20 minutes. He at least showed some effort, albeit by clattering into opponents. The abject Antony showed none.
By the time Ten Hag turned to Bruno Fernandes, Rasmus Hojlund and Marcus Rashford in a triple change, the game was gone and the fans departing with any chance. By the time the attendance was announced, the crowd was perhaps half that. It meant far fewer remained to boo than had at half-time. If the Manchester United public were voting with their feet, it scarcely bodes well for Ten Hag.