Although Edinson Cavani stepped off the bench to rescue a point for United the period between Saint-Maximin’s seventh minute opener and the Uruguayan’s 71st minute equaliser must have ranked among Rangnick’s least comfortable technical area interludes.
After getting his tactics so right for so long Eddie Howe deserved to see his side register a transformative victory but many among a full house at St James’ Park will have departed believing, however improbably, that relegation can still be avoided.
As if Howe did not have sufficient pre-match problems to contend with, he was able to name only eight substitutes, including two goalkeepers, on the home bench with an amalgam of Covid and injuries cited as the reason.
In contrast, Ralf Rangnick had been more concerned about who to leave out after 25 fully-fit senior United players trained on the eve of what was the club’s first game for more than a fortnight. His eventual starting XI looked formidably strong but swiftly proved more than a little ring rusty. When Raphaël Varane turned in unusually ponderous fashion, he forfeited possession to Sean Longstaff and in a blink of an eye Allan Saint-Maximin had the ball at his feet and was sashaying beyond three makers, Harry Maguire included.
For a moment it seemed as if the Frenchman had delayed his shot too long, but instead Saint-Maximin had merely been picking his spot in the top corner. As the ball curved imperiously beyond a helpless David De Gea, Cristiano Ronaldo could not help but look impressed.
Tellingly, Howe had directed some gentle criticism at the slightly out of sorts Saint-Maximin last week, and the former Nice winger appeared on a mission to prove a point. It left Maguire, Varane and company struggling to cope with his devastating, and thoroughly destructive, change of pace.
Results may have disappointed since Howe succeeded Steve Bruce, but his man management has certainly brought the best out of an apparently re-invented Joelinton. Once again operating at the heart of midfield rather than at centre-forward, the Brazilian delighted in dispossessing a startled Scott McTominay on several occasions.
The deeper Joelinton dropped as the game wore on the better he got, in several instances serving as a quasi sweeper, protecting his defence from danger by stealing from the toecaps of opponents, in one instance an advancing Diogo Dalot.
Joelinton’s presence as a reborn enforcer also protected Jonjo Shelvey, permitting his fellow midfielder to concentrate on finding gaps in Rangnick’s rearguard. Accordingly De Gea needed to react smartly to divert Shelvey’s 25-yard shot at a moment in the game when Ronaldo’s expression had turned slightly sullen.
Alarmingly for the visitors’ manager, there seemed a lack of telepathy between Ronaldo, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford. It hardly helped their cause that Bruno Fernandes was strangely ineffective in a thoroughly overrun midfield in a rather awkward and impractical formation.
When Saint-Maximin wrongfooted three visiting defenders and Callum Wilson’s first time shot eluded De Gea’s grasp, St James’ Park erupted in ecstasy. Fortunately for Rangnick, whose pained facial contortions by now suggested that a wisdom tooth required immediate extraction, that “goal” was disallowed for offside, but it was clear something was very wrong.
It was Howe’s misfortune that it proved one of Wilson’s final acts as, on the brink of half time, his most reliable goalscorer hobbled off with a nasty looking ankle injury and Jacob Murphy trotted on.
As Saint-Maximin morphed into Newcastle’s central striker, Murphy went wide left, and Longstaff shifted into a slightly more advanced midfield role, as Rangnick made a double substitution, introducing Jadon Sancho and Edinson Cavani at the expense of Fred and Greenwood.
His side would have been two down early in the second period, though, had Saint-Maximin not proved he is human after all by shooting weakly straight at De Gea after being set up by Emil Krafth’s right wing advance.
As Howe’s anguished body language emphasised it was the sort of miss that can change games, but Rangnick perhaps thought the same about the chance Sancho’s cut back conjured for Cavani to side foot wide.
Ronaldo also volleyed wide – and was arguably lucky to receive merely a yellow card for a wild, reckless, presumably petulant off the ball swipe of a boot at Ryan Fraser.
Cavani eventually raised the tone by peeling away from his marker and meeting Dalot’s cross. Although his initial shot was blocked it deflected kindly for one of the game’s supreme opportunists and, with Martin Dubravka stranded, United were level.
When the impressive De Gea saved brilliantly from the substitute Miguel Almiron Howe knew it was not his night.