Sluggish Manchester United held to a draw by Sunderland
Sunderland 1 Manchester United 1
If this is a sign of things to come at Manchester United, they will soon be singing Ave Maria on the Stretford End rather than heralding the talents of the club’s soon-to-be record signing from Real Madrid.
At £60 million, Angel di Maria will not come cheap when he completes his move to United, but the edgy and nervous display by Louis van Gaal’s team in this draw against Sunderland suggested that a similar investment must be made in defence and midfield this week if the club is to have any hope of challenging for Champions League qualification this season.
Yes, United have injuries to overcome – Chris Smalling joined the casualty list here with a first-half groin injury – but this team is a shadow of those which won thirteen league titles under Sir Alex Ferguson and even with an empty treatment room, Van Gaal’s squad appears well short of the quality of previous United teams.
The only positive from this fixture for United is that Sunderland failed to build on Jack Rodwell’s first-half equaliser, following Juan Mata’s opener, to claim a deserved victory.
United have endured some chastening moments at the Stadium of Light in recent seasons, with last January’s Capital One Cup semi-final defeat here stinging almost as much as the pain of learning, as they trudged off the pitch on Wearside, that Manchester City had won the 2011-12 league title following a dramatic late fightback at the Etihad.
But the uncertainty and anxiety which United displayed in the opening stages of this fixture are just as likely to be etched on the memory of those involved.
Compromised by injuries to the likes of Jonny Evans, Luke Shaw and Rafael da Silva, Van Gaal was once again forced to turn to the callow Tyler Blackett alongside Phil Jones and Smalling in the same unconvincing back three which was ditched after just forty-five minutes of last week’s 2-1 Old Trafford defeat against Swansea City.
With Ander Herrera joining long-term absentee Michael Carrick on the sidelines following a training ground injury, United were also depleted in midfield, where Tom Cleverley partnered Darren Fletcher in the holding positions in front of the back three.
Van Gaal may have been able to restore Robin van Persie to the starting line-up alongside Wayne Rooney, but the alarming sense of chaos at the back suggested that United’s illustrious forwards would be spending much of the game watching their defenders fighting fires of their own making.
Sunderland, clearly having the studied the footage of United’s traumatic afternoon against Swansea, targeted the visitors the defensive frailties from the off, with the makeshift wing-back Ashley Young gifted the home side a first minute opportunity by losing the ball to Connor Wickham 35 yards from goal.
The home side failed to take advantage on that occasions, but the alarm bells were already ringing and Lee Cattermole fired another warning two minutes later when he shot wide from twenty yards.
Fletcher and Cleverley struggled to cope with the pressure applied by Sunderland’s tenacious midfielders, while Smalling, Jones and Blackett all looked to each other for direction and reassurance, receiving only confusion and panic in return.
At 20, and blessed with an imposing physique and strong left-foot, Blackett should have a bright future in the game for United and England, but there is a danger that the experience of playing amid such confusion could set him back and stunt his progress.
United simply need Evans to regain fitness as quickly as possible and hope that £16m signing Marcos Rojo enjoys a smooth landing in the Premier League, of which there is no guarantee.
The fact that United were able to resist Sunderland’s early pressure and take the lead through Juan Mata on sixteen minutes was no sign that they had got their act together, more a case of scoring against the run of play.
Antonio Valencia’s cross from the right, following a deflection of Cattermole, left Mata with a tap-in at the far post and the Spaniard gleefully claimed the opener.
But rather than build on their lead, United appeared to have an Everest to climb in terms of keeping a clean sheet for the remaining 74 minutes.
And so it proved, with Sunderland attempting to respond quickly through Wickham’s low strike from long range before Rodwell equalised on the half hour.
Valencia, having done well to create Mata’s goal, highlighted the defensive flaws in his game by losing the former Manchester City midfielder as Sebastian Larsson’s corner flew in from the right.
Six yards out, Rodwell found himself unmarked and able to head in his first goal for his new club.
With so much of their recent success built on foundations laid by the likes of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, Jaap Stam, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, United’s defence now appears as flimsy as a house of cards.
Their only hope of salvation on this occasion was the poverty of Sunderland as an attacking force.
Gus Poyet’s team had won the midfield battle, but neither Wickham nor Steven Fletcher was able to provide the finishing touch which could have secured a comfortable victory.
United, with Van Persie appearing short of full match fitness, barely troubled goalkeeper Vito Mannone and their desperation was borne out when Young was booked by referee Martin Atkinson for attempted to win a penalty with a dive following a challenge by Wes Brown.
Desperate times result in desperate measures and United, who ended the game with a central midfield pairing of Cleverley and Adnan Januzaj, may find that Di Maria offers little more than wallpaper over a gaping crack.