Sunderland vs. Manchester United: Winners and Losers from Premier League Game
Manchester United picked up their first point of the new Premier League season on Sunday, after they were held to a 1-1 draw by Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.
Juan Mata gave United the lead—somewhat against the run of play, it must be said—just 17 minutes into the first half, before Jack Rodwell got Sunderland back on terms with a powerful header on the half-hour mark.
Once again playing in the 3-5-2 formation new manager Louis van Gaal seemingly prefers, United again struggled for fluency and organisation throughout the 90 minutes—just as they did in the defeat to Swansea City last weekend. This time they at least avoided getting beaten, although Van Gaal still has a lot of issues to resolve before fans will be confident about this new era.
Sunderland, meanwhile, drew their second successive league game, leaving them scarcely better off than their opponents—although manager Gus Poyet will surely have seen plenty of reasons to be confident the first win is not very far away.
Read on for some of the winners and losers from the match.
Loser: Louis van Gaal
It should not need saying that, after just two games, it is still far too early to make any strident conclusions about Van Gaal's Manchester United tenure. Having said that, it cannot be denied that a draw—and another lacklustre performance to partner it—will only serve to increase the pressure and scrutiny around him at this early stage.
For the second game in a row United were uninventive in attack and often disorganised at the back, as the 3-5-2 that Van Gaal has decided to employ only seems to highlight the flaws within the current playing squad.
Antonio Valencia's return was clearly a huge boost down the right-hand side, and the wing-back created United's goal, but elsewhere on the pitch players seemed to still be adjusting to what is demanded of them.
That was particularly the case in defence, while the Mata-Wayne Rooney-Robin van Persie triumvirate that the formation is ostensibly employed to benefit looked mediocre for almost the entire time they were on the pitch together.
Clearly, it would be best not to judge Van Gaal's methods until he has a fully fit squad at his disposal—until Marcos Rojo (and Angel di Maria, who is set to join Manchester next week, per Guillem Balague) are available and Van Persie has regained full match sharpness.
But, with three league games against the three promoted sides now facing United, surely the Dutchman needs to deliver nine points, and performances to match, to settle a few early nerves around Old Trafford.
Van Gaal was quoted by Sky Sports as saying:
In the first half, we played an equal match with Sunderland. We didn't create so much but scored a fantastic goal.
But then we've already warned our players they don't have to give a lot of set-pieces away, and we gave a lot of set-pieces away and they scored out of a set-piece, so that was disappointing.
We played much better in the second half and could have created more but in the last third, we lacked creative passes.
Winner: Lee Cattermole
What did Lee Cattermole get up to during the summer break? Whatever it was, it seems doubtful he was mainly sitting around watching the World Cup like the rest of us, as the Englishman has started the season in brilliant form.
After a goalscoring performance in the draw with West Brom, Cattermole was arguably the Man of the Match in this game, blocking United in midfield and time and again being the man on the scene to react to danger. He even posed a threat going forward, producing the first shot of the match and going on to create a couple of others for his teammates.
For so long a figure of fun for his (admittedly ridiculous) disciplinary record, Cattermole was also a model professional in a contest that demanded the utmost concentration from him throughout, putting in well-timed, fair challenges to ensure United could not gain control of the battle.
It was a strong display, and perhaps an early indication that, at 26, Cattermole might be about to deliver a more consistent campaign than we have seen from him in the past.
Losers: Manchester United's Defensive Organisation
Chris Smalling's injury (which forced his early substitution) did not help, but United's new-look three-man defence once again appeared to be very much a work in progress throughout Sunday's 90 minutes.
Van Gaal has a difficult issue on his hands; with Jonny Evans injured, Smalling and Phil Jones are clearly his most experienced and proficient defenders at his disposal, but they are struggling to get to grips with the system.
Tyler Blackett, meanwhile, is very evidently feeling his way at this level but appears to have a far greater command of the tactical demands Van Gaal expects of him—even if he struggles always to fulfil them.
Those twin issues lead to a combination of individual mistakes and breakdowns in understanding over the course of a game, opening up gaps that Sunderland frequently attempted to exploit.
Then again, it should be noted that Sunderland's only goal of the game actually came from a corner, as Valencia lost his man and allowed Rodwell the space to head home. That indicates not everything they did was bad, but clearly more work needs to be put in on the training ground before they come up against more prolific attacking sides.
As Daniel Taylor of The Guardian noted:
In the first half in particular there was plenty of evidence to support Van Gaal’s assertion that United’s self-belief had been “smashed” by the defeat to Swansea City the previous weekend.
They did at least start passing the ball with a touch of the old spark after the interval but it was strange that Gus Poyet’s team did not play with more adventure bearing in mind their opponents finished with a makeshift three-man defence featuring Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane.
Winner: Sunderland's Organisation
Before the game Poyet talked candidly about Manchester United's 3-5-2 and how his side had worked extensively in training to counter the strengths of that system—and perhaps attack the weaknesses it also presents.
That resulted in him presenting a 4-3-3 formation, one that relied on two of his forwards—usually Will Buckley and Connor Wickham—to track United's full-backs, and his midfield trio of Sebastian Larsson, Cattermole and Rodwell to dominate matters in the middle of the park.
It was a system that undoubtedly worked, as Sunderland controlled the majority of the match and would have won with a bit more luck or quality in front of goal.
It is encouraging for the team's future, especially if Poyet can produce similar tactical plans against future opponents. What is more, Sunderland suddenly seem to have a few decent options off the bench—Jordi Gomez, Liam Bridcutt and Jozy Altidore being useful reinforcements to call upon.
After such an inconsistent season last time around, one that looked pretty much certain to end in relegation up until the final few remarkable weeks, Sunderland look far better placed to have a more successful campaign this time around.
They may still have only two points from their first two games, but Poyet has every right to feel confident about things moving forward.
Loser: Tom Cleverley
Tom Cleverley looked devoid of both confidence and conviction for large parts of this game, time and time again giving the ball away in midfield or opting for the safest possible pass when a slightly riskier option might have opened things up in the final third.
For large parts of the game United were far too obvious in the final third and consequently lacked the space or the positions their key attacking players needed to create dangerous chances; Cleverley was not solely to blame for that, but his timidity and risk-aversion played its role.
With Ander Herrera injured, Van Gaal was forced to pair Cleverley alongside Darren Fletcher—but even if the partnership was not the preferred option, the Dutchman would surely have expected to see a better balance from two such experienced players. Instead he got umpteen sideways passes and a lot of space for Sunderland to counter-attack into.
It was interesting that Van Gaal decided to bring off Fletcher, not Cleverley, when he decided to add Adnan Januzaj to the mix deep into the second half. Fletcher had not had a great game but was surely more likely to offer defensive cover than Cleverley—especially with Januzaj more likely to push further forward in what was already an unfamiliar role to him.
Perhaps Van Gaal was trying to bolster Cleverley's clearly battered confidence by keeping him on. Either way, it will seemingly take more than that to return the England international to something nearer his full potential.
Winner: Will Buckley
On the face of it, there can be few more daunting opponents to make your full Premier League debut against than Manchester United—but that is exactly what Buckley did on Sunday.
After 17 minutes in an unfamiliar right-back role against West Brom last weekend, Buckley started against United at the Stadium of Light and was one of the most impressive attacking performers for his side down the right flank.
Yes, he was "only" confronted by Ashley Young and Blackett down that channel, but the former Brighton playmaker nevertheless troubled both players repeatedly as he quickly earned the trust and support of the Sunderland fans, who applauded his efforts and impact throughout.
What is more, Buckley was diligent defensively—getting back to help his side out as his manager had doubtless demanded. On the face of it, Poyet's team selection (with Buckley and Wickham supporting Steven Fletcher) was remarkably adventurous, but with Buckley tracking back Sunderland rarely looked open down that side of the pitch.
It was only one game, but nevertheless it augurs well for Buckley's chances of adapting to this level—after so long being considered one of the better players plying his trade in the Championship.