Monday was hard work. We ground Aston Villa down, eventually they buckled after they put a serious shift in for the first half an hour. Looking back at the game, we had to weather their storm and then it was pretty comfortable from 30 minutes onwards. They gave everything they had first half and the second was as comfortable as I can remember. I can see a similar game plan from our opponents this weekend, who have a habit of starting games well and fading away. That doesn’t mean I want to see more of the same from United, we must do better in the opening periods of games at home. The start at Norwich was great and even at Brentford we started the game much stronger and deserved the goal. We haven’t been doing that at home often enough. We got early goals against QPR and Forest but tailed away straight after. I’m all for grinding teams down, and it’s necessary but until we demonstrate we can win a game after conceding a goal, it’s essential that we try and start games better.
Our opponents will know how to beat us. Press us high. Make our midfield play close to our own goal and pressure Dummet and Lascelles when in possession. The usual problem sides have is that Dwight Gayle thrives on the space they leave in behind by pressing. We hardly tried to find him on Monday until Shelvey eventually played one ball over the top and it nearly came off. Then he had to leave the pitch and I feared the worst. Then something fantastic happened, Mitrovic came on and played like a forward should play. He won headers (even jumping for them is an improvement), he held the ball up, he pressed defenders and the goal keeper. All of the things he doesn’t do, he did. So well done to him. He’s clearly regained some of Rafa’s trust as he’d already displaced the decent Murphy in the pecking order. I’ve a lot of time for players that come back from the abyss through getting their head down and grafting. He needs to continue to do it, towards the end of the Villa game he was trying to take everything on his chest again and not bothering with the headers. That was probably a bit of fatigue as he gave everything in the hour or so before that. I’m the blokes biggest doubter but he’s got me behind him by doing a bit of running about and playing with some intelligence. It doesn’t take much. When Bristol go for it in the first 15 especially, his hold up play will be vital to giving us a break and allowing his team mates to counter attack. What a chance he’s got now with Gayle out for a while. I really hope that when Gayle is back fit, he can only make the bench as Mitrovic is in the vein of his life, having scored goals in the massive games coming up. That’s what we need from him this weekend as well.
Bristol City (like Aston Villa) are one of the worst sides in the country at the moment. They played this week losing two nil to Fulham at home and conceded two frankly disastrous goals from a defensive perspective. They’ve won one of their last seventeen league games and that was against lowly Rotherham. That run (lasting from mid-October) includes 12 straight league defeats. Their form of late had suggested something of a recovery including draws with Derby (where they were three nil up after 28 minutes but still drew the game) and Sheffield Wednesday. At loss at Leeds wasn’t unexpected but they really will have expected something from Fulham at home this week and the pressure is starting to mount on manager Lee Johnson. Bristol have scored a respectable 42 goals this season, far more than all of their relegation rivals but their defence is the third worst in the league. They have just lost top scorer Tammy Abraham for a number of weeks and considering he is the league’s second top scorer behind Gayle, he’ll be a huge miss. Bristol have won just two of their 16 away games this season but have an impressive 22 away goals this season, four more than Huddersfield. They’ve also conceded just 28 away from home, not bad really so it’s bizarre they’ve lost 11 of 16 on the road. Their away wins came at Fulham in September (4 0) and at Burton in August. They’ve lost eight of their last nine away games.
Stats like this point to a home win so convincingly that it reminds me of Blackburn at home and away, when all of the form, stats and logic pointed to United having six more points than we do. There’s a lot going to happen between now and the end of the season. United have the best defence, the best attack and we’ve won more games than any other side. We deserve to be top of the league. This season we’ve had to listen to so much from the media about how ‘The table will look different in a few weeks’ or ‘Newcastle could well find themselves outside of the top two’ very soon. Some of it has been genuine predictions made by blokes who’ve just been wrong. Most of it is vindictive from a media who still loathe/fear a successful Newcastle United in the Premier League. First it was Brighton. They were the greatest team ever and were going to pull away with it. Then we beat them with no strikers. Leeds next; bright young manager, better than us according to some. Beat them two nil not even in third gear. It was closer to paying in reverse, so easy the win came. Now it’s Huddersfield. Credit to them and their run. They can’t stop winning and it’s mostly late goals and fair old slices of luck. They’ve still only won one game by more than one goal this season. It’ll come back to haunt them as the season progresses. The only constant is Newcastle United have been clear of third place with plenty to spare. Goal difference is important.
It’s vital Bristol are beaten this weekend. There’ll be plenty to write about the three games we’ve got coming up. Twenty nine games without a penalty for United (the second most in the football league) and I don’t think a player has been sent off against us this season in the league. I’ll not go through the numerous incidents this season of horrific and consistent tackles against our players inside and outside the box – but we are doing this division without the adequate support of referees. Consider the Forest game when we had two penalties incorrectly awarded to our opponents and two players incorrectly sent off. Staggering. No hard luck stories this weekend though. Bristol are a poor side and must be beaten. Matt Ritchie is one game from a two match ban before the three biggest games of the season. His form has been superb of late, and he’s the man we need. There’s an argument Atsu could come in for this one to protect Ritchie, but that likely won’t happen. Goufrann scored again on Monday. I like him, but we get so little from the left side in an attacking sense. We need more from both he and Paul in an attacking sense. They are defensively solid, credit to them for that but we need more going forwards. Particularly with Mitrovic in the team, who thrives on crosses. I would play Atsu ahead of Goufrann, but don’t think it will happen. The rest of the side will remain the same.
In their last two away games at Derby and Leeds, Bristol went all out in the first half hour. Expect the same here. They know that if they take the lead, there’s a good chance they can win the game. Why wouldn’t they come and have ago. We ground Villa down on Monday. They huffed and puffed for 30 minutes and gave it everything. They didn’t force Darlow into a proper save. We need to do the same but also offer an attacking threat. If we can go into Tuesday on the back of a great win, it’ll be the perfect start to a mental week. Huddersfield have a local derby away at Barnsley. Hard game. Winnable, but hard. They can’t keep winning forever. Brighton host Reading. One of them is going to drop points. As are one of Leeds and Sheff Wed, who play each other (not that they’re rivals, really). So come on United, let’s beat this lot and all but secure promotion a week on Tuesday.
ALEX HURST – Follow Alex on @tfalex1892
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