MANCHESTER, England -- Three thoughts on Manchester United's 3-2 comeback win over Newcastle United in the Premier League on Saturday at Old Trafford.
1. Has Sanchez rescued Mourinho's job?
Has Alexis Sanchez saved Jose Mourinho's job? The obituaries were being written after an appalling first half in which Manchester United were torn apart by a Newcastle side whose attacking threat, before their visit to Old Trafford, had been minimal. The hosts could have been as many as four goals down, but turned it around in a thrilling last 20 minutes and left onlookers scratching their heads. It was rousing, quite remarkable stuff -- but what exactly can anyone make of it?
Because, in the bigger picture, can anyone really be happy that United have been reduced to this? In a match they needed to win, they were abject before the interval and looked broken, completely outplayed and outfought for the opening 45 minutes. It took a kitchen-sink effort to blow Newcastle away, Marouane Fellaini thrown up front to cause havoc in a formation that, by the end, resembled all-out attack. There was little shape, rhyme or reason to any of it -- but United pummelled through by sheer weight of numbers and their manager may now live to fight another day.
"Sometimes things are not just in the manager's hands," Mourinho said in the build-up to this game. He had a point, of course, and might suggest that nobody tells players to perform with the sheer sloppiness and uncertainty that helped Newcastle gain an advantage that they looked for long periods like they'd see through. So praise for this comeback, which finished with Paul Pogba throwing his shirt into the crowd and players celebrating in front of a jubilant support, must be qualified: this was a thrilling night in the old United tradition, yes, but the haphazard manner in which it came about did not speak of any real plan or scheme.
It spoke, eventually, of the players' professional pride, their ultimate determination not to plumb one more humiliating depth. It also spoke of the remarkable support from this Old Trafford crowd. At half-time, having witnessed what was surely the worst half of Mourinho's reign, the fans to either side of the tunnel roared their players off the pitch. It was an eye-opening reaction and bred a obvious thought: if Mourinho's tenure does, despite this win, end up being cut short soon, he will have missed a glorious opportunity to tap into something big.
2. Mourinho's last-ditch changes pay off
In the end, Mourinho's substitutions paid off. It did not seem as if that would be the case when in the 20th minute, Marcus Rashford headed a glorious opportunity wide. That would have halved United's deficit within a minute of Mourinho switching him to the No. 10 position, having introduced Juan Mata for the unfortunate Eric Bailly in what must surely be the earliest tactical substitution of his managerial career. It was a sitter, and at that moment it looked costly.
But eventually Mata, from the kind of position he thrives on, curled home the free kick that put United back into the game, and from then on the pressure was constant. Fellaini, a menace after coming on at the break for Scott McTominay, came close before Anthony Martial cut inside to fire in a fine equaliser. And what a twist in the script it was that Alexis Sanchez, left out of the side just as he had been at West Ham but introduced for Rashford in the 67th minute, provided the goal that sent Old Trafford into raptures. Sanchez's stint in Manchester could hardly have been more underwhelming so far; this was the sort of chest-beating, vein-throbbing moment he specialises in, though, and perhaps it is a turning point in his United career.
And perhaps it is one for Mourinho, too. But it also raised the question: if United can entertain like this, battering at the door and eventually slugging an away side into submission, why can they not achieve it from the start? "Attack, attack, attack" is the cry around these parts nowadays: if Mourinho can set them up to do exactly that against weaker opponents, rather than scraping around desperately for salvation, then he will earn far more credit than for his game-changing substitutions.
3. Newcastle cruelly robbed in the end
Who could have imagined that Newcastle would fly out of the traps as they did here? Rafa Benitez has preached safety first throughout a fiendishly tough start to the season, and in their previous seven league games, they had struggled to pose any kind of consistent threat. But their manager is no fool and clearly saw that United were there to be exposed, and in that surreal opening period, embarrassed. Even before Kenedy's opener, they had shown a willingness to commit men forward that seemed to catch United -- as well as most neutrals -- offguard, ruthlessly punishing some atrocious defending to score twice inside the opening 10 minutes.
Their first goal, an admittedly fine left-footed finish from Kenedy, came after McTominay missed an interception in the middle of the park and Ayoze Perez was given the freedom of Old Trafford to thread his teammate through and turn inside a soft Ashley Young. Their second, drilled hard past David De Gea by Yoshinori Muto in a crowded box after Young had again defended weakly, was avoidable too and they showed little intention of stopping there.
Before half-time they could have scored at least twice more, De Gea making a flying save from Jonjo Shelvey and reacting sharply to save a flicked header from Muto, who was excellent on his first Premier League start. Mohamed Diame then robbed Nemanja Matic and charged through the middle before shooting straight at the United keeper; there was a penalty shout, too, when Young appeared to handle a Shelvey free kick. For the long-suffering away support, this must have felt like football from a parallel dimension.
Those visiting fans' wild celebrations were interspersed with chants against the club's deeply unpopular owner, who was watching from the directors' box. Ashley saw his team, who had not led at any previous point in the campaign, struggle during the second half and from the moment Mata beat Martin Dubravka from 20 yards, an equaliser was virtually inevitable.
By the 90th minute, it looked as if they had done enough to hold on, and even posed a threat on the break themselves. Then Sanchez came up with his last-ditch intervention, and, in the cruelest of ways, Newcastle were sent back to square one.