Audacity has become one of Alan Pardew's favourite words. It is a trait he actively encourages in his players but not even Hatem Ben Arfa can match the chutzpah of Newcastle United's board.

Whereas Pardew wants his team to pass and move with dash and daring, Mike Ashley, Newcastle's owner, possesses a rare capacity to court unpopularity in pursuit of financial benefit. Accordingly Tyneside woke to reports that Wonga, the payday loans company often criticised for its interest rates, was in advanced negotiations with Newcastle over a shirt and, possibly, stadium sponsorship deal.

To say the prospect did not go down well with fans would be an understatement. Indeed, judging from the initial reaction, the debate about the club's wider social responsibilities versus a potential £8m a year for player investment seemed as one-sided as the opening stages of Manchester United's visit.

As good as the movement of Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra proved at the two corners from which they headed their side into a two-goal lead, such swift set-piece concession were galling for Pardew.

In mitigation, Newcastle's manager was without his first-choice goalkeeper, Tim Krul, and his preferred central defensive pairing of Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor.

Even so all Pardew's talk of his team breaking into the top four rang a little hollow. Or at least it did until he ordered Ben Arfa – by some distance Newcastle's best and most audacious individual – to switch from the right of a 4-4-2 starting formation to the left of a 4-3-3 configuration.

Suddenly, Newcastle finished the first half strongly, Sir Alex Ferguson was out of his dugout and arguing with the fourth official, Kevin Friend, (whose proffered hand Manchester United's manager, incidentally, neglected to shake) and St James' Park reflected on what might have been.

As Newcastle recaptured some of the "rhythmic control" – another favourite Pardew term – that characterised much of their rise to a fifth-placed finish last season, a big "if only" moment arrived early in the second half. Demba Ba hit the bar and Papiss Cissé believed he had squeezed the rebound over the line only for Howard Webb to give David de Gea the benefit of the doubt.

Home supporters were already upset with Webb following the first-half incident in which the referee booked Cheik Tioté for bundling over Wayne Rooney. The England forward may have made the most of that challenge but Tioté's penchant for attracting yellow cards represents a problem. The Ivorian's enforcement skills are essential to establishing Newcastle's passing style – not to mention permitting Yohan Cabaye to strut his midfield stuff – but, all too often, Tioté is left needing to watch his step after attracting a booking.

They say that 2-0 is a dangerous lead and Newcastle might just have hauled themselves back into things had his second-half labours not been cramped by a second booking in four days.

Instead, Tom Cleverley's wonder goal – or mishit cross – ensured that the best efforts of Ben Arfa and friends would count for nothing. It also offered confirmation that Pardew's bold – some would say audacious - pre-match talk about his side's ability to reprise January's Premier League home victory against Manchester United had turned to dust.

That said, it would be wrong to say that Newcastle have regressed since that stirring 3-0 triumph. Ben Arfa has since blossomed into one of the Premier League's brightest talent, Papiss Cissé's goal threat has arrived, Davide Santon is looking the full-back that José Mourinho once dubbed "a phenomenon" at Internazionale and young talents such as Shane Ferguson and Sammy Ameobi are emerging fast.

The only trouble is that key personnel including Tioté, Cabaye and Cissé have taken time to get going this autumn, Europa League commitments inevitably stretching sometimes fairly slender squad resources and there are now real expectations to live up to.

No matter. Pardew's recently signed eight-year contract is studded with exclusion clauses catering for assorted contingencies yet it affords him the time required to weather episodes of minor turbulence. Nonetheless the manager remains anxious to avoid another defeat on Sunday week when his players travel to Sunderland for a north-east derby featuring two teams struggling to hit peak form.

Wearsiders will mock the apparently impending Wonga connection but at least, in Ben Arfa, Pardew possesses a player whose interpretation of audacity comes laden with class and verve.