Amidst the spotlight of an exciting 3-3 draw between Newcastle United and Manchester United at St. James Park was the feeling of infinite refreshment. This was not the fragile Newcastle, lacking in character and mental courage to challenge the top dogs and to pull themselves out of a relegation dogfight. This too was not Manchester United, boring staid possession, sideways passing and lacking in penetrative imagination. Here were two teams trading goals for goals, attacking, piling on the pressure.
It certainly was entertainment, and it certainly did swing about a roller coaster of emotions. High octane, seizing the moment and desperation. Chaos. Those words can certainly describe a game which is being taunted as one of the best this season. Debatable, for a game of this magnitude certainly lacked the quality to illuminate a grand stage. Yes, there were goals, coolly slotted penalties, counter attacking intent, a beauty of a goal from Wayne Rooney and controversy. Yet this was a game defined by defensive mistakes, silliness, lack of concentration and a lack of composure in midfield to control the tempo and manage the chaos.
To bemoan this however seems superfluous. Is this not what the game is all about anyway? Goals! Does not the fan go to the stadium or tune in to the television or stream from their laptop or set the frequency on their radio or even follow on social media for the fun and fancy of goals? The one factor of the game that has not changed in the 152 years of its organised existence. The game is about outscoring your opponent. Driving in the ball past the opponent’s goal line more times than they can manage to drive it past yours. To do this requires attacking football. That has never changed.
However, you do wonder whether that notion has taken on a slight evolution. That the hallmark of great teams is not just to outscore, but to prevent the opponent from scoring altogether. That is what breeds dominance. The underlying thread of great teams is not simply just a powerful attack, but a menacing defence. That therefore forms a precarious balance. At the top level, the goal is still to score goals, but that must be followed by the balance between attacking fluidity and defensive solidity.
It is that question that has certainly dragged through the forbearers of modern football. Indeed, to be able to accomplish attacking intent and retain a defensive solidity, other factors come into play. Most surely is the issue of personnel. A side must be capable of having players who can fit in to the attack-defence equilibrium.
But then again, some teams, despite the circumstances are enamoured with a rich history that leaves them with no option but to play in a certain way. Manchester United is one such team and surely so is Newcastle United. The side from Tyneside might not have as rich a history as their Manchester counterparts, but there is a general understanding among their fans that the only way to play is to play well and win. The spectactle at times seems greater than the desire to win. The sparkle must be there even in the confusion of mixed results. The spectacular performance must always precede the results. Way and winning is dictated, almost certainly compelled by tradition.
That is what has dogged these two teams this season. Certainly, the Red Devils have been wandering in that confused state of seeing a philosophy being built, dour performances and a mixture of results that nobody has any idea what to make of. It has seen its elite former players speak out against in contrast to a glorious past. This has seen Louis van Gaal, the United manager declare — rightly so — that the United fanbase is one that is living in the past. However, as true as those words are, it is a pretty illustrious past on which to fall back upon.
It is why there was desperation for a performance such as this. Indeed, it was helter-skelter, swashbuckling and counter attacking, deprived of those long periods of staid possession and passing back and forth looking for a way through highly organised defences. It seemingly descended into chaos — mispass followed by misspass, end to end chances and a game that could have gone either way.
This may not be what any manager wants — for any manager who sits comfortably in his seat watching a game of this manner will inevitably twitch at the uncertainty of the times. It is the one major flaw of management — an attempt to make sense of the chaos of football. But such an attempt has been so dire, so dour from the Manchester United end as in rather different terms from Newcastle that anything new seemed refreshing.
It probably echoes Pierre Bosquet’s assertion of the Battle of Balaclava. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie (“It is magnificent, but it is not war: it is madness”). Bosquet certainly knew that the Charge of the Light Brigade was not an act of bravery, but that the stupidity of the commanders and soldiers involved produced a spectacle that though it seemed like brilliant warfare, was in fact madness. The reality is that the same probably applies to Newcastle United 3-3 Manchester United. It was magnificent, regardless of the fact that the point did not favour any of the sides involved.