Even in Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest years at Manchester United there were always failures and regrets among the two decades of trophies although one thing that was never tolerated for any length of time was mediocrity. Yet, in the post-Ferguson world, mediocre is what United specialise in.
Afterwards, Louis van Gaal lamented what he called the lack of “creative passing” in a team that now has just one point from their first two league games, the same as the likes of Stoke City and Leicester City. But really, that was only part of a problem that seems to show no sign of relenting even as United prepare to break the British transfer record for Angel di Maria in the next few days.
As if the fee was not big enough, so Di Maria, if he does come, must shoulder much of the burden of reviving an institution which can no longer roll up at clubs like Sunderland and expect to overawe the locals with the usual mix of reputation and talent. Van Gaal lamented his squad’s injuries and he complained about the lack of chances they created but the bigger picture is surely a team that finds a thousand reasons to be fearful when boldness is required.
A draw at the Stadium of Light was an improvement on United’s previous league fixture against Sunderland – that defeat at the end of last season – but still this was a long way from the United of the last 20 years. In the last few minutes of the game, they roused themselves for a brief battering at the resolve of a tired home side which was more redolent of the old United than the insipid and uncertain performance that had gone before it.
As for Sunderland, whose goalscorer was the former Manchester City man Jack Rodwell, this was another astute performance against United masterminded by Gus Poyet. He has faced United four times now in his short spell as Sunderland manager and lost only once, in the second leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final last season – a tie that went Sunderland’s way on penalties.
Poyet said afterwards that his team had prepared to combat United’s 3-5-2 system and in the first half they had the best of it, only tiring after the break. For Wes Brown, the former United defender, and Lee Cattermole, this was the kind of game in which they thrived. Cattermole closed down a United midfield that was absurdly slow, while Brown kept Robin van Persie quiet right up to the moment he was substituted after the hour.
United’s goal scored after 17 minutes by Juan Mata was the first time they got behind Sunderland’s defence. It was hard to remember too many occasions when they did it subsequently.
It was breath-taking at times how vulnerable United looked when one considers it was 15 months ago the club were carrying the Premier League trophy around Old Trafford for the 13th time. The defence of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Tyler Blackett looks like something Ferguson might have tried at the end of the season when the title was already in the bag – but this is supposed to be the future for United.
There were times when the most assured of the trio looked like Blackett, at just 20. For much of the early stages of the first half Jones and Smalling in particular found themselves bullied by Connor Wickham who is adept at making the space for himself and then lets himself down when it comes to the finishing.
Ashley Young set the tone in the first minute with a disastrous ball back towards his own goal that was straight into the path of Wickham. United managed to see off the danger on that occasion but at other times they found it impossible to stop Wickham create the space for a shot, like in the 27th minute when he eased Jones out of the way. On the right side, Will Buckley, signed from Brighton, had the pace to make life difficult for United.
It was Buckley who won the corner from which Sunderland scored their equaliser on 30 minutes, a free header for Rodwell after he had lost his marker Antonio Valencia. Before then United had taken the lead with their first decent attack, Valencia getting beyond Patrick van Aanholt and crossing low to the back post where Mata was completely unmarked and able to nudge the ball in.
Otherwise, it was worryingly ponderous and sideways from United. In that respect they looked like England at this summer’s World Cup finals with Wayne Rooney reprising his role as a frustrated self-appointed midfielder dropping ever deeper to try to spark some life into the team. Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher have played useful supporting roles in better United sides in the past but this time they could not give the team the direction it needed.
Just before half-time, United lost Smalling to an injury he had been struggling with and he was replaced by Michael Keane. Van Gaal persevered with the three-man defence, none the less, and while United looked less shaky they were no more cutting in attack. Young threw himself over Brown’s reluctant challenge in the Sunderland area after the hour and was booked for his trouble.
Van Gaal objected to the decision to book Young, though he did not say definitively that it should have been a penalty – rather that some referees might have given it. He also suggested that an earlier tackle on Van Persie that was made by Santiago Vergini could have been a penalty although that claim looked even shakier.
Poyet simply said that Young’s reputation had landed him in trouble. The Sunderland manager is evidently still not happy about his club’s summer transfer business, complaining about leaks when he was asked about the possibility of Salomon Kalou signing. As for Buckley, impressive in the first half, Poyet reminded everyone that he cost “£2.5m, while some people are spending £30m, £40m, £50m”.
The introduction of Adnan Januzaj and Danny Welbeck leant some impetus to United’s late surge in search of a winner. That they spent much of that period glancing over their shoulder in fear of Sunderland doing the same tells you much about how far this team have to go.