Sunderland vs. Manchester United: 6 Things We Learned
In the end, it was a routine win for Manchester United thanks to a Robin van Persie shot deflected in off Titus Bramble's knee.
There was precious little to learn that we didn't already know.
Sunderland are a poor team who, apart from a 20-minute period in the second half, seem to be like "rabbits in the headlights of a car."
They did precious little running and supporting for each other except for that period, and too many players tried to win it in their own.
They will miss the bite of Lee Cattermole in midfield in that all-important run-in. More importantly, the loss of Stephen Fletcher means they are unlikely to win many more matches.
Danny Graham still hasn't scored since his move from Swansea, and between them, Fletcher and Craig Gardner have scored as many as the rest of the squad put together.
That is no excuse for yet another 1-0 win by United. It wasn't that they didn't want more goals. Nor was it because they fielded probably five second-choice players.
There was almost an "end of season" feel to the match. You almost felt that United expected to win and Sunderland to lose.
So there was not the usual nervousness before United scored, nor when they failed to put the result out of question.
To be frank, they aren't going to lose the six matches City need them to, even if the latter win all nine of their remaining matches.
So Sir Alex's biggest challenge may still be to motivate his squad if City roll over and die in the next couple of weeks.
United Could Probably Field Two Teams and Still Win the League at the Moment
When you consider that United are still carrying at least three players who many people consider not to have found their form this season—all of whom played today—it does beg the question how bad the opposition has been this term.
None of Anderson, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia sparkled. They were workmanlike today, and that gives a key to the difference.
The competition has been so manifestly unfair this season that there was a certain sympathy with the commentator suggesting that United should, like Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, be able to field a second team in tier two of English football.
For those who point to the lack of world-class individuals in the United squad, it seems somewhat facile to point out that it is that very depth of squad and brilliant teamwork that have won the title.
Certainly neither of these were in evidence from Sunderland.
People will of course look for individual factors, such as Van Persie making the difference. But as he himself would probably observe, he could not do it on his own.
Michael Carrick Has Been the Difference in Midfield
Once again, the strains of "It's Carrick, you know; hard to believe it's not Scholes" rang out from the travelling Manchester United faithful.
Once again, it was a masterclass from a man who has turned round his many doubters with a string of critical performances.
This is a guy now playing at the top of his form. He was doing the same for England against Montenegro for 45 minutes last Tuesday, so their coach changed the tactics to avoid midfield altogether.
That is how critical he has become. Against Chelsea in the FA Cup, he ran out of legs because of the gigantic effort he had put in so soon after the Real Madrid devastation.
And it is a testament to his ability to dominate lesser opposition that Sir Alex felt able to pair him with Anderson, knowing that Carrick can do the work of one-and-a-half midfielders.
While it seems likely that United will field Giggs and Cleverley in midfield on Monday against Chelsea, don't rule out Carrick being asked to dig deep yet again.
So there he was today: selfish enough to keep the ball out of the clutches of Sunderland, masterfully stroking the ball around the field and tackling and intercepting to win back wasted possession.
When the Player of the Year awards are handed out, no doubt it will be the spectacular individuals who grab the attention: Bale, Suarez and Van Persie.
But if United win the title at a canter and if van Persie doesn't recapture his prolific goal-scoring form, don't rule out the Football Writers' award going to the largely unsung Geordie.
The FA Cup Seems More Important Right Now
Sir Alex Ferguson is not afraid to gamble when he thinks the moment is right.
Looking at the team he fielded on Saturday, you would have to conclude that his priority is the FA Cup right now.
The personnel were:
De Gea, Rafael, Smalling, Vidic, Buttner, Valencia, Carick, Anderson, Young, Kagawa and Van Persie, with Lindegaard, Evra, Evans, Nani, Cleverley, Powell and Welbeck on the bench.
So no Rooney, Ferdinand, Chicharito, Giggs, Scholes (now fit) or Jones (now fit). And no doubt if United had been winning comfortably, Powell would have got a run-out.
This suggests that Monday's team at Stamford Bridge will be:
De Gea, Jones, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra, Nani, Giggs, Cleverley, Welbeck, Rooney and Chicharito, with no doubt Lindegaard, Smalling, Carrick, Powell, Young, Scholes and Van Persie on the bench.
Even if that isn't quite right, Saturday's team suggested he had total confidence his largely "second-string" team could get the job done so that he can take advantage of hoped-for tiredness in a Chelsea squad that doesn't have the same depth.
And the Blues surely have a greater need to ensure a Champions League place than an FA Cup semi-final berth?
Alex Buttner and Chris Smalling Are Set for the Future
In the midst of the disappointment for England on Tuesday, it could not be denied that Chris Smalling had an impressive couple of games.
While Joleon Lescott was abysmal to the point of utter lack of professionalism in that second-half collapse, Smalling looked calm, composed and in control for most of the two World Cup qualifiers.
He was much the same against Sunderland.
Indeed, he looks much more comfortable at centre-back than at right-back. One towering header to clear the danger when De Gea failed to come summed up the quality of his game.
With Michael Keane, Scott Wootton, Tom Thorpe and Michele Fornasier waiting in the wings, together with the likely future top trio of Evans, Jones and Smalling, United look secure in central defence after Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand retire.
Meanwhile, Alex Buttner put in yet another eye-catching stint at left-back. If Evra stays, Sir Alex could be spoilt for choice in that position next season as Fabio returns to join the other two in competing for the berth.
Buttner looks a much more competent tackler than Evra; he is almost as good racing down the wing, but he also has a compelling shot in either foot. No doubt he will get more exposure after the title is won.
Shinji Kagawa Is Still Not Strong Enough
When he was at Borussia Dortmund, Shinji Kagawa seemed to run the show. Why isn't that happening at United?
OK, so he got a hat-trick against Norwich, which showcased his talent and clinical finishing. But any excuses about his injuries this season are now wearing thin because he still isn't wholly convincing.
That is not to say that he isn't a highly skilled and intelligent player. Can you be too clever for your teammates sometimes?
The problem is that he frankly still isn't strong enough for the Premier League.
Lionel Messi has a similar build, Ryan Giggs isn't huge and Santi Cazorla wouldn't win "Mr Universe." But you can't knock them off the ball the way you can with Kagawa.
Ultimately, it is about strength in the legs and seeing the physical challenge coming. But right now, it looks as if opposing defenders are relishing the ease with which they can push him aside.
No doubt Sir Alex will sort that out this summer because he is far too good and potentially far too important for the talent he showed in Germany and for his country not to manifest itself for United some time soon.
David De Gea Is Still Vulnerable in the Air
The encounter with his rock-hard captain won't have helped matters, but it once again highlighted De Gea's vulnerability in the air.
Vidic crashing into his keeper, head to head, suggested that the captain had question marks. Then later, Smalling had to make a critical headed clearance with De Gea rooted to the goal-line only a few feet behind him.
After the clash of heads with his captain, one started to wonder whether he might have had a "Petr Cech moment."
Although Cech fractured his skull and has worn a head protector ever since, the clash won't exactly have encouraged the Spaniard to tidy up the one residual question mark about his keeping.
There is absolutely no doubt that he is a world-class shot-stopper, and he has won over his many critics from last season.
But he and Eric Steele must sort out that last niggling doubt for good and all, otherwise Asmir Begovic might look a safer bet.
Nevertheless, if these are the only issues United have to worry about over the next six weeks or so, they will enjoy their summer holidays.
Meanwhile, the fans will continue to speculate that an outstanding team and arguably the best squad in depth in England can still be enriched with a couple of international class midfielders.
Unless the opposition also shapes up this summer, it could be a procession to a 21st title next year.
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