AS Steve Bruce likes to state, it is the “accumulation of points” that will determine where Newcastle United finish this season. So, while last night’s performance at Old Trafford might have been a marked improvement from the Magpies’ previous showing at Chelsea, the fact that the end result was the same is ultimately all that matters. When it comes to the totting up of points, Newcastle have drawn another blank.

No matter that they matched Manchester United for more than 50 minutes, or that they created more opportunities in the first half in particular than in almost all of their other games against top-four teams this season. By the time the final whistle blew, they remained just three points clear of an ever-improving Fulham in the battle to avoid the final relegation spot.

The questions over Steve Bruce’s future have not been silenced, the mantle of the next ‘must-win game’ has simply shifted to Saturday night’s home meeting with Wolves. Lose that, and Newcastle could be in the bottom three by the time Fulham have travelled to an out-of-sorts Crystal Palace next Sunday.

As he staves off the criticism that has been hurled his way for most of the season, Bruce will cling to the positive signs that were evident last night. For the opening 45 minutes, Newcastle attacked with pace and purpose, with Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin especially impressive.

Saint-Maximin’s side-footed strike cancelled out Marcus Rashford’s opener and ensured the Magpies were level at half-time, but Manchester United flexed their muscles in the second half and returned to second spot in the table thanks to goals from Daniel James and Bruno Fernandes.

Newcastle’s limp second-half performance was more in keeping with the majority of their displays this season, with heads dropping and the collective press that had worked so well in the first half becoming more and more ragged. True, Manchester United are Manchester City’s closest challengers for the title. Even so, the way in which the Magpies dropped out of the game in the final half-hour was still alarming.

Minds should have been focused by Fulham’s 1-0 win over Sheffield United on Saturday, but after an initial show of fight, Newcastle reverted to type. Clearly, that has to be a concern.

The closing stages were a non-event, but Bruce will cite his side’s attacking display before the break as a positive. Having watched Dwight Gayle offer next to nothing as an orthodox centre-forward at Chelsea, Bruce opted to tweak his attacking formation. Joelinton replaced Gayle, but rather than playing as the central striker, the Brazilian found himself stationed on the right of a front three. Saint-Maximin took up his usual role on the left, with Almiron stationed as a ‘false nine’ with the licence to maraud along the frontline.

The tactical tinkering appeared to catch Manchester United cold, with the hosts looking surprisingly shaky at the back in the opening 20 minutes. As a result, Newcastle were able to offer a threat from the off.

Unlike at Chelsea, where they barely fashioned a chance in the entire 90 minutes, the Magpies created three decent opportunities in the opening half-hour last night. The first came just four minutes in, and saw David De Gea turn Joelinton’s deflected cross over the bar after Newcastle’s number nine received the ball on the edge of the area courtesy of a poor punch from the Manchester United goalkeeper.

De Gea erred again shortly after, spraying a pass straight to Joelinton, but while the Brazilian shuffled the ball neatly inside, Jonjo Shelvey swept a wasteful first-time effort over.

At least Newcastle were committing plenty of players into the final third though, something that had not been the case in so many of their limp away displays this term, and their sense of attacking adventure almost paid dividends shortly before the half-hour mark.

Almiron swivelled neatly 25 yards out, but De Gea was equal to his raking low shot, getting down to his left to make a save.

Manchester United’s attacking threat was largely non-existent in the opening 30 minutes, but as the first half wore on, so the hosts gradually began to click into gear. Their chief threat came down the flanks, with Rashford and Luke Shaw doubling up down the left and James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka linking on the opposite flank.

Wan-Bissaka tested Karl Darlow with a low shot that the Newcastle goalkeeper saved, but just as the Magpies looked to be coping with their opponents’ attacking, so a couple of defensive lapses resulted in them falling behind.

Emil Krafth had struggled badly at Chelsea, and the full-back was at fault again as Rashford skipped past him down the left. Krafth recovered his position, but was beaten again as Rashford twisted inside him before firing in a low shot. Rashford’s effort was aimed at Darlow’s near post, and with the Newcastle goalkeeper appearing to have got his angles wrong, the ball squeezed into the net. Given Krafth’s struggles in the last two games, questions will inevitably be asked about the wisdom of allowing DeAndre Yedlin to leave in last month’s transfer window.

The concession was harsh on the visitors, but they were only behind for six minutes. Saint-Maximin’s shot was tipped over by De Gea, but when Manchester United’s defenders failed to deal with the subsequent set-piece, Newcastle levelled.

Maguire’s weak header from Joe Willock’s cross fell invitingly for Saint-Maximin, and the Frenchman swept home a slick side-footed finish to claim his first goal since early October.

Equalising so quickly after falling behind was the key to Newcastle remaining in the game, and meant Bruce’s side could remain on the front foot after the interval.

Saint-Maximin came close five minutes into the second half, but while he burst across the face of the 18-yard box to fashion a shooting opportunity after Shelvey’s floated cross was cleared into his path, his fierce low strike thudded straight into De Gea’s midriff.

Either side of the goalkeeper, and Newcastle would have been claiming the lead, but as it was, they found themselves falling behind for a second time six minutes later.

It was another soft goal to concede from a defensive point of view, with Jamal Lewis failing to cut out Nemanja Matic’s square ball across the area. Lewis appeared to be put off by Fernandes, who was standing in front of him, and his error meant James was able to receive possession in a pocket of space 14 yards out. The Welshman had time to steady himself before lashing a crisp finish past Darlow.

Darlow tipped Anthony Martial’s drive over the bar as Manchester United’s dominance began to become more marked, and Fernandes almost made the hosts’ position more comfortable midway through the second half when he glanced a near-post header wide.

Fernandes has been a goalscoring revelation this season, and while he was denied on that occasion, he was able to claim his 22nd goal of the campaign from the penalty spot with 16 minutes left. Willock chopped down Rashford, and Fernandes stepped up to score.