Mediocrity is not meant to be stunning. But then under Louis van Gaal this season Manchester United have challenged quite a few concepts.
At home, the Theatre of Dreams has undergone a drab makeover, in Europe there was the alarming exit at Wolfsburg and now this, a first loss on Wearside since 1997, when Sunderland played at Roker Park.
That was a different era. This most certainly is. If United fans thought the season’s low had come at Old Trafford against Southampton three weeks ago, then this performance, particularly in the second half, must rank right down there among the worst of the post-Ferguson era.
Sunderland began the day second-bottom and with the second-worst home record in the Premier League. They won, in the end with a level of comfort that must have shocked United on the pitch, in the stands, in the dugout and in the boardroom. If the Glazers have not sanctioned telephone calls to Jose Mourinho, then they will surely do so now.
Wayne Rooney emerged to call the defeat “sad”, an unusual description. His mournful demeanour spoke of emotions beyond matchday frustration. This is a player with a glittering career to think of. He does not want it petering out in yellow cards for trips on Lee Cattermole in games between fifth versus 19th.
Rooney listed United’s failings: “We didn’t play well today, we weren’t aggressive, didn’t win second balls, didn’t defend set-pieces and didn’t create enough chances. All that has come together and it’s not good enough.”
United were on the back foot from the third minute when a free-kick from Wahbi Khazri was allowed to travel around 35 yards through the United defence and into the net off the far post. There was a desperate dive from David de Gea at the last moment. De Gea was perhaps distracted by Jermain Defoe’s leap over the ball.
Sunderland were elated but this is a team better suited to scoring three minutes from the end than three minutes in. They sat back and invited United on. Michael Carrick took full advantage and for half an hour in the first half he was the game’s defining player. All United traffic went through him and it was less ponderous than it has been at times this season.
United coped with another injury – to Matteo Darmian, who suffered a dislocated shoulder. On went 21-year-old full-back Donald Love. Assistant manager Ryan Giggs was on the touchline urging United forward.
An equaliser was coming. Juan Mata had a sighter from 18 yards on the half-hour and nine minutes later, from the same position on the edge of the penalty area, Mata struck another. This time Vito Mannone could only parry the effort and Anthony Martial followed up and dinked a superb, cool chip over the stranded goalkeeper.
It was now time for United to kick on. Yet De Gea had been vocal in berating his defence on 25 minutes after Cattermole had been given freedom to shoot, and Sunderland adopted a more adventurous approach after the interval.
Patrick van Aanholt has become a real threat from left-back for the Wearside club, and his low cross found Defoe on 52 minutes. Defoe’s flick looked to be beating De Gea until Daley Blind lunged in to clear.
As United faded, gradually Sunderland grew. Poor recruitment has been the blight of the North-East club over the past eight years but in Khazri and Lamine Koné, Sam Allardyce has identified two talents.
Both came from France last month and along with another signing then, Dame N’Doye, they have given Sunderland freshness, pace and physical presence. With 20 minutes left N’Doye was released behind the splintering United back four by Cattermole, who improved over the course of the match. N’Doye bore down into the United area and struck a low shot that was destined for the far corner. Then De Gea stuck out his right boot to save his side again.
Koné then revealed skill far beyond the normal centre-back when he forced De Gea into another springing tip away.
Memphis Depay went on for the disappointing Jesse Lingard and produced a couple of efforts, but United were vague and strung out, not tight and tactical – and then came the winner with eight minutes to go. Khazri had shown that he can deliver a free-kick and now he whipped in a corner. Sunderland had clearly worked on the move and United, according to Van Gaal, had prepared for it too.
But Chris Smalling watched the ball rather than his man, Koné. Consequently Koné was free eight yards out to power down a header that squirmed through De Gea’s grasp and Martial’s forlorn swipe on the line. There was a debate as to whose goal it was but the focus should have been on Smalling, a player who has received a lot of praise this season.
When the final whistle blew, Sunderland had earned three vital points and had provided an alternative to the depressing Adam Johnson story. They now fly to Dubai for some warm-weather training. United, meanwhile, fly into another storm.
Sunderland: (4-1-4-1) Mannone; Yedlin, Koné, O’Shea, Van Aanholt; Kirchhoff (Rodwell, 15); N’Doye, Cattermole (Toivonen, 85) M’Vila, Khazri; Defoe (Borini, 71).
Manchester United: (4-2-3-1) De Gea; Darmian (Love, 37), Smalling, Blind, Borthwick-Jackson; Schneiderlin (Keane, 86) Carrick; Lingard (Depay, 62) Mata, Martial; Rooney.
Referee: Andre Marriner
Man of the match: Koné (Sunderland)
Match rating: 5/10