At 2-0 down after nine minutes, who would have thought Old Trafford would have been singing the name of Jose Mourinho come the final whistle or celebrating a winner from Alexis Sanchez?
This was a game in which United had no option but to win. League position be damned, this was a fixture in which the players were expected to show that there was some fight within them. This was a fixture in which Mourinho was supposed to come up with the answers.
Their recent form had been depressingly, record-breakingly bad but surely with Newcastle United coming to town it would be time to put right some of what has gone wrong?
Two down in nine minutes. How’s that for a response?
Manchester United don’t play again until October 20, at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea. By half-time here at Old Trafford, the smart money would have been on someone other than Mourinho being in charge for the game in London. It felt like the end.
But there was plenty to admire about the fortitude United showed in the second half to get back in the game. It wasn’t any tactical switch that won it. It was sheer bloody-mindedness. It was the kind of victory they came to savour over the years at this ground.
Alexis may have missed out on his £75,000 starting fee for this game, but he ultimately earned his goal bonus, netting into the Stretford End at a time in the game which used to be designated for United winners.
Ex-defender Steve Bruce once said that United were never beaten; they only ran out of time. Sanchez ensured that wasn’t the case here.
Juan Mata’s excellent free-kick and then Anthony Martial’s well-taken goal showed there was fight and pride left in remnants in this Manchester United squad.
The earlier missed chances of Marcus Rashford – from a delicious Romelu Lukaku cross in the first half – and from Matic in the second suggested that Mourinho would surrender with a whimper.
Some in the Stretford End where Kenedy and Yoshinori Muto scored their goals simply couldn’t believe what had happened. United had been caught out by moves instigated by nondescript throw-ins. Liverpool are paying thousands for that kind of service.
And analysing the goals, there was more evidence of United being bad than Newcastle being particularly good. Nemanja Matic – one of Mourinho’s warriors who has gone battle for him so often – let him down for the first by allowing a quick ball past him.
Ashley Young was playing right back instead of Antonio Valencia – not in the matchday squad on the same week he accidently liked a post on Instagram criticising his manager. Try explaining that one to a time traveller from the past.
Young was turned inside out by Kenedy, allowing the on-loan Brazilian that Mourinho signed for Chelsea to steer a clever finish past David de Gea on his favoured left foot.
Incredibly, that was the first time Newcastle led in a Premier League game this season. In their seven previous matches they had lost five – admittedly against some high-class teams – but drawn scoreless in their only two winnable fixtures against Cardiff City and Crystal Palace.
United are having a stinker at the moment but few teams in the league are having as bad a time of it as Newcastle. They’re the one team in the league who could make United feel good about themselves.
Like at United, there is civil war between the owner and the fans. Newcastle’s fans would back their manager to the hilt, knowing what kind of restrictions he’s working under. And maybe United’s will now too.
Mourinho is lumbering under the weight of a completely different type of expectation. Both he and United supporters have gorged on titles for as long as the mind can remember but no longer.
When the hosts looked down and out, the travelling Newcastle fans acted both as support for their team and as a Greek Chorus for the beleaguered United boss.
“You’re getting sacked in the morning,” they sang. “You’re not special anymore!”
As bad as United’s players were, their initial game plan should owe something to the manager. Well. here it was all over the place and he got lucky that there was some spirit left in the tank.
Mourinho hooked Eric Bailly after 15 minutes and put Scott McTominay at centre-back instead. It would be remiss to criticise the youngster for his performance out of position for the rest of the first half, but it would be entirely fair to criticise his manager for exposing him in the first place.
Presumably, Mourinho has belatedly come to the realisation that he’d like his central defenders to play out from the back.
If that’s the case, why not keep Daley Blind? Why sign Victor Lindelof and Bailly in the first place? Matic – interestingly – went there instead of McTominay after the break. That can be understood as another shot across the bows of executive vice-chair Ed Woodward and the Glazer ownership for their failures to back him in the transfer market.
Mourinho had the ignominy of preparing for this game with his name in the press and suggestions that he would be consigned to the United dustbin whether they won or lost.
At some point during the game – when United couldn’t get a foothold – it would appear that he had reached that devastating end. Well, this one’s for you, Mr Woodward. Try sacking him now.
The MUTV cameras inside the ground picked out plenty of banners in support of the manager here. They believe there’s a way of doing things and making a manager carry the can for a decade or more’s worth of negligent leadership is not necessarily it.
Removing Mourinho might well give United the dead-cat bounce but there are many, many more problems lurking under the surface. Start with the fact that the Abu Dhabi ownership group has put £1 billion into Manchester City while the Glazers have taken £1bn out of Manchester United.
But that’s for another day.
What’s important is that Mourinho plugged into the spirit of the club here and fought a terrific fight. And how unlikely too it was that two of his most criticised players got him off the hook.