Sunderland vs Manchester United: ‘Sunday League’ defending exposes United’s full malaise

Valencia gave his new manager as significant a reminder as you can that he does not like defending

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The Independent Online

There was a challenge yesterday – not by a Manchester United defender, obviously – to find the most damning condemnation of what was Louis van Gaal’s rearguard here at the Stadium of Light.

Gary Neville went with “Sunday League”, which was harsh on anyone who has dragged themselves out of bed at a weekend to play the game. “The worst back five, back four or back three to wear the shirt in the Premier League,” sounded fairly reasonable given the evidence, and the ineptitude that was presented before those who think United’s problems are a lot deeper even than the loans the Glazer family had to find to buy the club.

By closing time at the Stadium of Light, the pub back five read, from the right, Antonio Valencia, Michael Keane, Phil Jones, Tyler Blackett and Ashley Young. It does not even sound like a Manchester United defence.

To this malaise, the 20-time champions keep buying the rejected forwards of their former rivals. Juan Mata came last season for £37m. Angel Di Maria is close to completing a £64m move from Real Madrid. Neville celebrated that. Yet there is no overall plan of recruitment at Old Trafford any more. That, even more than the hapless defending, causes greater uncertainty about the club’s future.

Paul Scholes wrote in his column in this newspaper with genuine concern about the slide the football club he graced is currently on and how many years recovery can take. The empire is crumbling.

By the finish of a draw at a ground where they have never lost a Premier League game, United had Tom Cleverley and Adnan Januzaj at the heart of a midfield that was once patrolled by men like Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, Scholes and Bryan Robson. Darren Fletcher had started the game and was as ineffectual as the player beside him. Cleverley’s most notable involvement in the game was to give away lazily the corner that led to the equaliser, a goal in which Valencia gave his new manager as significant a reminder as you can that he does not like defending.

Jack Rodwell had not scored a goal in the Premier League since May last year when Valencia decided marking wasn’t for him. An unmarked Rodwell headed Sebastian Larsson’s right-wing corner into David de Gea’s goal and then ran to the crowd and grabbed his shirt, the kind of thing United defenders used to do.

Nemanja Vidic, remember, was allowed to leave this football club last season when he asked for a deal longer than the one-year extension offered to players over 30. There were concerns over his knee. He could hop better than some of the men at Van Gaal’s disposal now. Surely someone at the club had watched Jones and Chris Smalling over the past couple of seasons. Smalling was handed the crucial, central role by Van Gaal, taking the ball repeatedly from De Gea at goal-kicks and free-kicks. He was actually the least ineffective of the visiting defenders, but his groin gave up and in the 44th minute he was substituted.

Young never looked sure of the defensive element of playing as a left wing-back. Valencia’s best moment came going forward as he surged past the Sunderland left-back Patrick van Aanholt, to create Mata’s goal after 17 minutes that came against the run of play.

Keane’s weak header in the second half almost allowed Connor Wickham to put the home side ahead. For that second half, the first-choice central defensive trio for Manchester United was Keane, Jones and Blackett. You cannot spell out the problems undermining Van Gaal more clearly than that and the return of Jonny Evans and Luke Shaw (both injured) will not make that much difference.

There is no backbone to his team. It did not even look secure when the hapless Jozy Altidore, who has scored two goals in 69 games in English football, was introduced as a 76th-minute substitute.

Do not blame the system. Van Gaal has inherited defenders who are not very good. 

Marcos Rojo has some job to do when his work permit clears, allowing him to take charge of a defence crying out for a leader and for shape. Van Gaal needs new players in that position to arrive before the transfer window closes next Monday.

He admitted at the weekend, in conversation with Neville, that implementing his philosophy on the current players at his disposal will take around three months. If the Dutchman creates defenders in that period, he will take on the guise of a miracle worker.

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