Sunderland vs Manchester United match report: Rodwell cancels out Mata strike as difficult start continues for Louis van Gaal

Sunderland 1 Manchester United 1

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.

Read more: Ferguson looms over Van Gaal at Stadium of Light

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.

Juan Mata puts Manchester United in the lead against Sunderland Juan Mata puts Manchester United in the lead against Sunderland

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.

Read more: Di Maria has said his goodbyes - Ancelotti
Di Maria factfile
Van Gaal has gone from 'king to devil'

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.

Louis van Gaal watches his team draw 1-1 with Sunderland Louis van Gaal watches his team draw 1-1 with Sunderland  

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links