The cavalry cannot come soon enough for Louis van Gaal and Manchester United. It is one point from six now, and a rather spawny one at that.
Sunderland were the better team here. Not just in terms of chances, but in the technical fields, too. They knew what they were about, they executed the manager’s plan, they were physically dominant. Their weakness, as ever, was in front of goal.
Still, it was only as the game became ragged near the end that United looked dangerous. They are a shadow right now; a shadow of themselves, and of a team with Champions League ambitions.
The result was an improvement on last week’s home defeat by Swansea City, but the performance was not. United have debilitating nerves at the back and the forwards are struggling to make the most of a pretty ordinary supply line.
They weren’t outclassed by Sunderland, but in a pedestrian second half, the best chance fell to Gus Poyet’s team when Tyler Blackett blocked a Connor Wickham shot — after a bit of ball juggling — on its way to goal.
That substitute Michael Keane had made a hash of a straight- forward defensive manoeuvre to allow the chance was par for the course. At the back, United are an accident waiting to happen these days.
Marcos Rojo will be in the starting line-up soon — Van Gaal really cannot afford delay, once the red tape has been snipped — and maybe Angel Di Maria if United can pull off this summer’s marquee signing from Real Madrid.
Whether an Argentinian winger solves the biggest problem here is doubtful, with a defensive overhaul so long overdue.
Van Gaal may argue that invention is just as pressingly required, though. Vito Mannone, Sunderland’s goalkeeper, was rarely called into action and the best of it was a 50-50 with Ashley Young, which the Sunderland man won, impressively. Young had earlier been booked for diving, so not everything at United has changed since Sir Alex Ferguson left.
The bottom-line problem for Van Gaal’s defence right now is this: whatever route to goal the opposition take, they look vulnerable. Ball in the air — vulnerable; ball down the flanks — certainly vulnerable; ball through the middle — vulnerable; half-assed misplaced pass that any League Two centre half would mop up in his sleep — surprisingly, still vulnerable.
Sunderland soon worked out that their approaches to the United goal did not have to be of any grand quality. Get it up there and let United’s jitters do the rest.
Nor can the blame be laid solely on the 3-5-2 system. Defenders of this reputation — and expense — should not be exposed by what is one of the more common tactical variations.
Van Gaal is probably mystified at the limitations of what is, with the exception of Luis Antonio Valencia at right wing-back, an English defence. It is no great surprise that Young looks as comfortable at left wing-back as he would sitting on a spike, but Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are England internationals, supposedly part of the national team’s rebuilding programme with youth at its heart. It is worrying to see them so devoid of confidence when faced with new ideas.
Also missing is the certainty that accompanied a United opening goal. Time was, if this team took a single goal lead at Sunderland, victory could almost be presumed.
Yesterday, when Juan Mata put United ahead against the run of play after 17 minutes, the presumption was of a Sunderland equaliser, most likely before half-time. In the end it took just 13 minutes. That the goal belonged to Jack Rodwell was another fillip for Poyet’s side. Attempting to rebuild his career after several wilderness years at Manchester City, Rodwell had a difficult debut against West Bromwich Albion last weekend. This was not greatly convincing, either, at first, but his equalising header changed that and, from there, his performance grew.
By the time he was taken off after 63 minutes — match fitness is still an issue — he looked much more like his old Evertonian self.
His goal was impressively taken, even if Manchester United’s marking left much to be desired — like, well, marking really. Sebastian Larsson whipped in the corner from the right and Rodwell lost Robin van Persie to rise high and give David de Gea no chance from close range.
It was a clever run, almost stopping near the end, to trick the Dutchman, and Poyet’s reaction suggested he enjoyed it, too. He waved his arms furiously to encourage the crowd into making more noise. After United’s goal the stadium had fallen surprisingly quiet.
No doubt that was due to the injustice of the scoreline. Until that moment it had been all Sunderland, United rarely venturing to the opposition penalty area. Then, from their first attack of note, a goal.
Valencia sped down the right and hit a low cross which eluded Sunderland’s back line, and was tapped in by Mata at the far post. At first, it seemed as if Larsson might have got the final touch, but his despairing lunge was merely the act of a man over-compensating for losing his runner.
No wonder the home fans stood nonplussed. They were probably wondering how United had reached this infant stage without conceding. As early as the second minute, a quite hopeless backpass by Young had almost allowed Wickham to put Steven Fletcher in, and three minutes later another defensive mess ended with Lee Cattermole shooting just wide.
Will Buckley, making his full debut following a transfer from Poyet’s old club Brighton and Hove Albion, was giving Young a troubling time on the flank and in the 16th minute he set up what should have been a Sunderland goal.
His break bamboozled three covering United players — not hard, there were times when one felt they could be taken in by the old penny-behind-the-ear gag — and he struck a perfect pass into the path of Wickham. His finish was dismal, however, straight at De Gea.
The home fans seemed happy enough at the end, but they may one day come to view this as a missed opportunity. All the best individual performances were from the home team — Santiago Vergini exceptional, Cattermole breaking up play superbly — and if Sunderland had more about them around United’s box they would undoubtedly have won.
It will not be like this once those reinforcements arrive. Surely? – Daily Mail