For a second straight week something disturbing happened at the peak of Premier League football. It was extreme mediocrity. First Wigan outplayed Chelsea, then lost to Hull City. Next up: Manchester United. They didn't lose but in the matter of avoiding defeat there are many degrees. This one was to be found in the basement.
Where Sunderland go from this impressively combative point is probably a matter for optimism (they really did look like a promising work in progress and you would certainly back them against Hull) – but as their manager Steve Bruce said, we don't have to speculate too ponderously about the nature of Manchester United's journey through the rest of the season.
It will continue, said Bruce with a weary sigh, to be another ultimate exercise in rejecting the concept of defeat.
But what happened to the inspiration in this leg of their travels? Forgetting Ronaldo, the new darling of Madrid, as United must for their own peace of mind, it seemed to have gone with the absence of the evergreen Ryan Giggs. Without Giggs, and with Paul Scholes unable to properly identify himself, United have rarely been less creative – or coherently driven.
Seven changes from the team that rather laboured against Wolfsburg in the Champions League didn't bring refreshment but chaos. Sir Alex Ferguson, who so vigorously vented his feelings on referee Alan Wiley for reasons which were not overwhelmingly apparent to the rest of us, must have regretted that he had not made an eighth change and granted Wayne Rooney a day of rest.
Rooney may be a football workaholic but against Sunderland he left all of his best tools at home. Setting aside the possibility that his football obsession has been utterly overtaken by some new-man invasion by the cares of impending fatherhood, Rooney should come out of this tailspin of form quickly enough. However, United's unhappiness with themselves stretched considerably wider than that of the player who has most successfully sought to fill the vacuum left at Old Trafford by Ronaldo.
Dimitar Berbatov stirred himself into a brilliant first equaliser, turning John O'Shea's deep cross past Craig Gordon with the finest of skill and timing, but it proved an isolated eruption of virtuosity. This was true of all United merit, which accumulated, typically, most strongly at the finish, when Anton Ferdinand could only deflect Patrice Evra's last-minute shot past a Gordon startled ruinously for a second time.
Sunderland undoubtedly deserved better, not least for the brilliance of Darren Bent's opening goal. There was, too, the splendid nerve and power of Kenwyne Jones when he headed his team back in front with an embarrassingly formal dismissal of the challenge of a United goalkeeper, Ben Foster, losing still more ground before the eyes of Fabio Capello.
United couldn't generate anything like coherence in midfield and this was only underlined by the combination of power and touch supplied for Sunderland by Lee Cattermole and Andy Reid. In the circumstances United's gleaning of a point was remarkable. "It's in them – and it's in him," said a philosophical Bruce after a reverential reference to Ferguson as the "ayatollah".
The former United stalwart added, "I'm not really interested in what United did. I was more interested in us. Everyone will say United were poor but it was our performance that made them poor. Our team can take great credit for the way they played. The spine of the team is always so important.
"You don't have to be Einstein to see what we tried to do. We tried to put a lot of physical presence and tenacity in there. We can't continue with up and down performance. You have to have a good one when you come to places like Old Trafford. The gap between the top and the bottom isn't closing – in fact if anything it is getting wider."
Bruce did make the point that the top four is looking a lot more like a top eight with the improvement of Manchester City, Tottenham, Everton and Aston Villa, but there was still a wide swathe of country to cross if a team like his could think seriously of competing with the best. "Coming here and getting a point and playing so well is obviously a bonus," said Bruce.
His own potential upward mobility has surely been enhanced by his swift impact on a team who avoided relegation only by goal difference last season. Fifteen players have been moved out, seven brought in and certainly there was no shortage of evidence of a team on the move, one which, above all, had grasped the need to fight to the end of every battle.
That they failed to hold off United was, Bruce accepted, not the result of failed nerve. It was partly a consequence of Kieran Richardson's folly in kicking away the ball and earning a second yellow card as United were making their last push for some kind of redemption. "That was stupid," said Bruce. "We knew what was coming."
United duly delivered and with trademarked ferocity. However, it was not a great day for the brand. Indeed, many more like this at the top of the English game and it might just be a matter for the Trades Description Act.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Foster; O'Shea, Vidic, Evans, Evra; Nani, Fletcher (Carrick, 71), Scholes (Anderson, 46), Welbeck (Valencia, 71); Rooney, Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Ferdinand, Brown, Fabio da Silva.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Bardsley, Turner, Ferdinand, Richardson; Malbranque (McCartney, 86), Cana, Cattermole, Reid (Henderson, 74); Bent, Jones (Campbell, 84). Substitutes not used: Fulop (gk), Nosworthy, Da Silva, Healey.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire)
Booked: Manchester United Scholes, Fletcher; Sunderland Bardsley, Ferdinand, Richardson.
Sent off: Richardson.
Man of the match: Jones.
Attendance: 75, 114.Reuse content