AS he reflected on his Newcastle United side’s heaviest home defeat for more than six years, Steve Bruce claimed the chaotic closing stages, in which Manchester United scored three goals from the 86th minute onwards, “did not give a true reflection of the game”.

Bruce is right – but not in the way he was probably imagining. The fact that a rampant Manchester United scored two goals in stoppage time was not a travesty – the anomaly was that it had taken them so long to make their clear superiority count. Newcastle finished a desperate evening having conceded four goals, but in keeping with the Premier League’s recent crazy scorelines, Manchester United could easily have claimed double that number such was the extent of their dominance.

So much for the visitors being a club in the grip of a crisis then. The feeling in the build-up to Saturday’s game was that Newcastle were meeting Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side at the ideal moment. Solskjaer was back under pressure, with Mauricio Pochettino once again waiting in the wings to take his job. David De Gea’s position was back under scrutiny after a midweek error for Spain. Harry Maguire was suffering a full-scale footballing meltdown, with his dismissal for England three days earlier having compounded a wretched start to the season.

The Magpies could not have wished for a better start, with Luke Shaw diverting Emil Krafth’s cross into his own goal inside the opening two minutes. Yet rather than exploiting their advantageous position, Newcastle retreated into their collective shell and passively stood by as Manchester United’s fleet-footed attackers ran riot.

Bruce pinned the blame for the defeat on a naïve final four minutes, claiming his players’ attempts to push forward in search of a winner had been their undoing. “We had a free-kick in the 85th minute, Jonjo (Shelvey) puts it into the box, and then all of a sudden, they’ve broken and they’re arguably as good as anyone playing on the counter-attack,” he said. “We were caught and we were far too naïve towards the end.”

There is an element of truth to his comments, but the chaotic finale should not mask the depth of Newcastle’s failings. The reality is that Saturday’s game followed a now all-too-familiar pattern of Bruce’s players meekly rolling over when faced with one of the Premier League’s so-called ‘big six’. Why on earth would they want to engineer a breakaway when they can guarantee six points by playing against Newcastle twice a season?

The pattern was established last season when Newcastle’s players failed to turn up for their FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester City, and continued this term when they failed to lay on glove on Tottenham until Eric Dier’s wafting arm provided them was an undeserved last-minute reprieve.

Saturday provided more of the same, with Newcastle’s conservative, stand-offish game plan playing right into Manchester United’s hands. Perhaps, if a packed-out St James’ Park had been roaring them on, Newcastle’s players would have felt compelled to press higher up the field and get in the faces of their supposedly fragile opponents. As it was, they barely made a tackle all night, and by standing off Manchester United’s forwards, they simply issued Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes and Juan Mata with free reign to do as they pleased.

Bruce clearly feels that containment is the best policy when faced with one of the Premier League’s big boys, but the evidence suggests the tactics do not work and it is surely telling that the rest of the top-flight is adopting a markedly different approach this season. Aston Villa, Leicester City, Everton and Leeds United have all pulled off notable results against members of the ‘big six’ by having a go. Why are Newcastle as a team, and Bruce as a manager, so terrified of trusting their own attacking talents?

“I think we went for it in the last ten or 15 minutes, and that is the problem you have,” said Bruce. “Yes, I know Man United had been beaten six and there’s been some strange results, and maybe it was a good time to get them. But for large periods we were in with a shout. I think if you play too many forward players, they’re going to do what they did in the last ten minutes.”

Perhaps, but surely merely trying to hang into games is not a viable approach for the rest of the season? Bruce needs to rethink both his team selection and tactics ahead of Sunday’s trip to Wolves. Joelinton’s reemergence as a wide attacker is not working, especially when it appears to be preventing Miguel Almiron from claiming a place in the team. Jeff Hendrick’s bright start to his Newcastle career has stalled badly, while Newcastle have to develop a more refined attacking approach than simply shuffling the ball to Allan Saint-Maximin and hoping for the best.

When Isaac Hayden departed at the start of the second half with an injury, there was a chance for Bruce to overhaul his approach. Instead, he took the safety-first option of installing centre-half Fabian Schar at the base of midfield. ‘Do as you please,” was the message sent out to Manchester United. ‘We’re more worried about you than you are of us’.

Newcastle had already ceded their early advantage by the time Hayden hobbled off, with Maguire having showcased his mental strengths by putting a dreadful week behind him as he headed home Mata’s corner to level the scores midway through the first half.

Manchester United had had an offside goal chalked off by VAR at that stage, and would have been deservedly ahead at half-time had Jamaal Lascelles not hacked Rashford’s goal-bound effort off the line and Darlow not made fine saves from both the England forward and Mata.

Darlow, who finished the game hobbling in obvious pain, was Newcastle’s star man by a distance, with his best moment coming in the 58th minute as he flung himself to his right to keep out Fernandes’ penalty, which was awarded for Jamal Lewis’ trip on Rashford.

The Magpies had one moment when the game looked like swinging in their direction, but while Callum Wilson thought he had scored when he met Saint-Maximin’s cross with a prodded strike, De Gea acrobatically clawed the ball to safety.

It proved a crucial moment as Manchester United finally claimed the lead they merited throughout with four minutes left. Rashford sent Fernandes away on the overlap, and the Portuguese atoned for his penalty miss with a slick finish into the corner.

A third goal arrived in the final minute – Aaron Wan-Bissaka rifled into the roof of the net after Rashford teed him up on the right of the box – and Newcastle’s late capitulation was complete when Rashford added a fourth goal deep into stoppage time, slotting past a helpless Darlow after Fernandes sent him galloping clear of the Newcastle defence.

“It’s the way to respond to a couple of disappointing performances,” said a justifiably satisfied Solksjaer. “The result from last time of course, and 1-0 down after a minute-and-a-half doesn’t make it easier, so I thought the boys responded fantastically. They created more than enough chances to win.”