Manchester United’s continued progress on the road to attacking fluidity unlocked Sunderland’s staunch but sputtering parked bus, ensuring a fourth consecutive league victory.
Congested United look to Valencia
David Moyes’ return to Old Trafford saw his Sunderland side present themselves in a deep-lying, compact, 4-1-4-1 that sought to force his former side’s congested attack to forage the flanks for space.
Again fielding two wide players with central tendencies, in Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, José Mourinho’s attacking plan relied on his full-backs to function as wide outlets – specifically Antonio Valencia, who showed more positional ambition than Daley Blind on the opposite flank.
While Fabio Borini tracked back diligently to protect left-back Patrick van Aanholt, the Italian often found himself drawn infield by United’s narrowness, frequently leaving the Ecuadorian free to collect on the right-touchline.
Blind fares better
Unfortunately for the hosts, save for a 43rd-minute back-post cross that no-one attacked, Valencia’s final ball was poor, and United only really threatened after Blind began to prevail upon Victor Anichebe’s reluctance to run towards his own goal.
Just one minute after the untracked Dutchman’s cross saw Paul Pogba nearly convert Papy Djilobodji’s poor clearance, Blind made a brilliantly-timed out-to-in run – in advance of provider Zlatan Ibrahimovic – to break the deadlock.
That attack was started by an upfield jaunt from centre-back Marcos Rojo; the Argentinian availing of he and Phil Jones’ one-man surplus in the face of Sunderland striker Jermaine Defoe. This was an overload that Sunderland also profited from, with both Djilobodji and Lamine Kone playing several well-judged forward passes to commence attacks.
Sunderland target Blind
Indeed, it was the latter who played the inside-right channel ball that forced Blind to foul Anichebe, in the lead-up to van Aanholt testing David de Gea with a well-struck free-kick. The target man’s presence on the right-flank, bullying the prone-to physicality Blind, was integral to Sunderland’s attacking strategy, that mainly consisted of breaking down the left and looking for back-post crosses to the big man.
Were it not for Moyes’ infamously reserved nature, that saw his side numerically hampered at attacking transitions, this ploy may have paid a dividend for the visitors – as evidenced by Blind’s awful 29th-minute attempt at clearing Defoe’s left-wing inswinger, that ended with both Anichebe and Borini fluffing glorious point-blank chances.
Anichebe and Borini swap
At half-time, with Sunderland already trailing, Moyes further hampered his side’s chances by asking Anichebe and Borini to swap flanks, facing the former up against the more physically-imposing Valencia.
This change also removed Borini’s protection of the flimsy left-side of Sunderland’s defence, where poor positioning from both van Aanholt and Djilobodji afforded United three glorious chances down the gaping inside-right channel in the first 20 minutes of the second-half. Two of those were clear-cut, but Jordan Pickford’s foot saved from Ibrahimovic, and Jason Denayer denied Mata with a crucial block.
Incredibly, despite watching a ten-minute period in which his side recovered as United retreated, Moyes failed to make a single attacking substitution – or any substitution at all, in fact. Only in the 82nd minute, seconds after Didier Ndong’s idiotic square pass gifted Pogba an interception and an assist for Ibrahimovic, did the negative one act by replacing Seb Larsson with Wahbi Khazri.
The error that preceded that change killed the game as a contest, but a sub of Mourinho’s own reignited it as a spectacle – and reinforced the newfound depth to United’s attack that the opener evinced – when Henrikh Mkhitaryan ran in advance of Ibrahimovic, like Blind in the first-half, to scorpion kick home the striker’s right-wing cross from an admittedly offside position.
A long-range injury-time consolation from Borini, while eye-catching, could not compare. Nor could it diminish the growing optimism of a United side that is slowly banishing the tactical rigidity of the post-Ferguson era, demonstrating greater defensive solidity, and getting the best out of perennial microscope-underdweller Pogba – who finished the game with the highest combined tackles and interceptions tally, the most number of shots attempted, and a priceless assist to his name.