Manchester United vs. Sunderland: 6 Things We Learned

Terry CarrollContributor IIIDecember 15, 2012

Manchester United vs. Sunderland: 6 Things We Learned

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    Some of the things Sir Alex Ferguson learned from Manchester United vs. Sunderland may not have pleased him.

    In fact, it is very possible that he was furious after the second half of yet another match where United murdered the opposition but were still sweating toward the end.

    Why would that be? Why were we watching "deja vu" reminding us of the Arsenal match which United walked but had to squeak a 2-1 result.

    The answer is twofold: despite winning 3-1, they should have been at least five up by the interval and finished at least eight to the good; second, they became casual, unprofessional and sloppy in the second half.

    Frankly, this won't do. It was hardly surprising that supporters started to flood out with more than 10 minutes to go. For the neutral, it was probably a pretty exciting match. For United fans, it was frustrating and nerve-wracking, despite the result.

    Nevertheless, this should not disguise the fact that, with Vidic back, and taking the view that this was an off day for the strikers, there is no reason why United can't win the Premier League title.

    Yes, there were individual errors, but once again, like last Sunday, United were a team. Attacking, they flowed as one unit, displaying the pacy, interchanging one-touch football that Sir Alex is seeking.

    There are some people who are becoming bored with "tiki-taka" football. Technically it's impressive; when it doesn't produce goals, it's about as boring as watching an old "Catenaccio" Italian game.

    Brendan Rodgers has brought "pass, pass, pass" to Liverpool with insufficient end product. Their supporters are tearing their hair out.

    By contrast, United, and indeed City, playing their skilful game, with top players, at pace, are more entertaining with a better end product.

    It looks like being a "tale of one City" this season, with two Manchester and no London clubs slugging it out to the end. Despite Saturday's frustrating show, United will surely prevail.

    So what did we learn?

Rooney and Van Persie Will Murder a Team Sometime Soon

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    Oh Wayne, Wayne, Wayne...

    Having yet another match which showed that Rooney is back close to his best, he uncharacteristically failed to produce.

    OK, so he got the third goal, but by then he should have had a cast-iron hat-trick. Was he trying to be too cute?

    Even the best strikers have off days, but what was perverse was that Wayne looked fit, sharp, dynamic, alert and every inch a world-class No. 10 Saturday.

    Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he had two crisp strikes and one strong header that all missed. He was chuckling to himself after each of the misses in the first half, probably because he hit them so well but not quite on target.

    The horizontal volley was so good that the crowd simply couldn't believe it hadn't gone in.

    Maybe the players started to think it's just one of those days. United didn't look like that; they looked as if they could score at will every time they attacked.

    The media Friday had been full of speculation that Simon Mignolet was a transfer target for United (h/t James Robson, Manchester Evening News). You couldn't, however, give him much credit for United failing to score more.

    Uncharacteristically, Van Persie also missed what looked like an overcomplicated attempt in the second half. Completely through, with only the keeper to beat, he chose a chip but this time missed wide.

    So it would be no exaggeration to suggest that the pair between them could have had six goals. That would not have been an unfair result, either. 

    Sunderland weren't that bad, and to their credit, their heads didn't even drop when the second goal went in. United's misses seemed to spur them on.

    The truth is, however, that with the depth of squad United have and the goal-scoring talent at their disposal, someone is going to get a hammering sometime soon.

    And their new top striking partnership will be right at the forefront of that blitz when it happens.

United Should Play 4-4-2

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    Sir Alex has found a formula that works. But how did he ever lose it in the first place?

    All this nonsense about diamonds and 4-2-3-1 is all very well, but when it came down to it, United beat City last week with 4-4-2.

    That is the formation that is the basis for their swingeing success under Sir Alex Ferguson. It plays to United's great traditions of uncompromising attacking and counterattacking football.

    Saturday it chewed lumps out of a Sunderland team on the crest of a wave after a convincing win in midweek.

    United had wave after wave of attack in the first half. With no luck involved whatsoever, they should have gone in 5-0 up.

    Van Persie and Cleverley scored two exquisite goals as United cut the Sunderland defence to ribbons down both flanks. But Rooney missed two excellent chances and Evra blazed a straightforward shot over the bar.

    Added to that, RVP had an excellent header saved at the foot of the post and Young also blazed a more difficult chance over.

    But part of the winning formula has been that Sir Alex must realise his best midfield combination is either Carrick and Cleverley or Carrick and Anderson.

    Saturday it was the former. Cleverley was excellent in his work rate, passing and end product, with a superb and deserved goal to show for it. He is intelligent, hard working and can be the catalyst that fits the jigsaw together in the final third.

    We shall return to Carrick later.

    Yes, there will be times to use one of the aforementioned formations. Against Newcastle, there was the surprise element of course. 

    But Sir Alex is unlikely to ever be wholly predictable, and this team, indeed the whole squad, can attack as one, defend as one and mingle different tactical formations as appropriate and at will.

    Last season some people were saying that this was the worst team United have had in a while.

    Wholly unlikely. You don't become a bad team overnight, and United had one of their worst injury crises ever last season.

    Is it possible that one player can make the difference? Clearly, yes. Robin van Persie is the keystone of this team. He is scoring for fun, and you can tell he is enjoying every minute of it. You can see he knows he is going to win something at last, and my golly he deserves it.

    So let's see more 4-4-2, Fergie.

Michael Carrick Is United's Best Midfielder

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    One supporter summed it up halfway through the second half: "Michael Carrick is man of the match, even though he went off at half time."

    Sadly, because he did go off, you'd have to give that accolade to Chris Smalling instead. Wayne Rooney would have got it if he'd converted those chances.

    Carrick carried on where he left off last Sunday. 

    He was almost faultless. He made marquee passes; he made defence splitting passes; but he also kept things simple. He also made Cleverley's goal with a delightful one-two. He could have had one of his own after a lung-busting 30-yard run for another one-two that ended with his shot being blocked.

    He was, simply, United's quarterback, directing the play, picking the passes, driving the team forward and yet still remaining calm, professional and totally on top of his game.

    You don't need to look at Carrick's stats for this season or last season for that matter. You know how good they are.

    Let's just give you one.

    Carrick has played 14 Premier League games in midfield this season. United have won 12 of those. The two that they lost, either Scholes or Giggs played alongside him instead of Anderson or Cleverley.

    Of course, Sir Alex has to rotate to keep his players fresh, but we still don't know why United's most influential player didn't appear after halftime.

    The difference was clear to see, however. Sir Alex may not be able to understand what happened in the second half, but the answer was that Carrick went off and Scholes and Giggs came on.

Scholes and Giggs Must Be Used Sparingly

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    The only conclusion that makes sense is that Sir Alex is playing these two midfield maestros enough games to get their Premier League medals at the end of the season.

    It is always sad to see a decline from greatness, but these two, who are among the greatest footballers in the history of the game, have become a liability.

    It is fair to note that Giggs was outstanding in the Cup defeat to Chelsea, for every second of the 120 minutes he played.

    The other side of the coin is that no player gives the ball away more. Once again he was anonymous when he came on this afternoon.

    Scholes hit one trademark cross-field pass this afternoon, but opposition coaches must be licking their lips now when they see he is on the park.

    Why? Because he can be got at. He gets caught in possession or is hurried into passes that lead to trouble. He doesn't have Carrick's calmness or time on the ball. When he loses it, he often gives away a free kick with a crude tackle.

    His losing the ball near United's penalty area was the start of Sunderland's attack that led to them scoring.

    Let's hope Sir Alex registered what was clear beyond doubt this afternoon. That when Carrick went off and especially after Giggs came on, the following happened:

    United played deeper than in the first half, inviting Sunderland on. Their build-up was considerably slower and they lost the ball more, especially in possession. After Giggs came on, all the momentum we had seen in the first period went out of their game.

    The result? As Sir Alex said, Sunderland almost embarrassed them (h/t Ben Smith, BBC).

    What was hardest to understand was that there were players needing game time on the bench.

    If Darren Fletcher can continue to manage his condition, he will be around for at least two or three more years, whereas Giggs and Scholes will surely retire at the end of this season.

    But Danny Welbeck desperately needs game time. Cleverley looks as if he can run forever, so why not keep him on and take off either Van Persie or Valencia?

    So instead of maintaining the attacking momentum, United fell back on top of their own defence, Sunderland became more encouraged and the much-needed clean sheet was spoiled yet again, despite Vidic's arrival.

    Sir Alex promised at the start of the season that United would never again lose a title on goal difference. 

    All season they have been conceding the first goal and too many in total. Saturday they were at their very best from back to front in the first half and should have put a mass of goals between them and City.

    Instead, they melted away, and it felt like they sneaked a result at the end.

Smalling and Vidic Should Be United's First-Choice Centre-Backs

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    Michael Carrick was nailed to be Man of the Match until he went off at halftime. He had one of his best performances of the season.

    Instead, and thanks to Rooney's and Van Persie's misses, Chris Smalling was the standout player on the pitch.

    It was 83 minutes before he made his first mistake. He had Steven Fletcher, who has scored almost all Sunderland's goals this season, in his pocket until he went off at halftime.

    He won everything in the air, and he looks very comfortable on the ball going forward. It is surely only a matter of time before he starts scoring again.

    We only had 22 minutes to see how his partnership with Nemanja Vidic would work. It was no surprise that Ferdinand went off, even though he had as good a match as last week. He and Smalling never looked troubled in the first half, except for one terrible slip by Rio.

    Vidic will take time to get back to his best, but what he brings to the defence above all is to get it organised.

    It wasn't Smalling or Vidic's fault that Sunderland scored. The midfield in front of them melted away with Carrick and then Cleverley gone. We were able to see how well Carrick links up with and protects his back four once he had departed.

    Yes, Jonny Evans had a good season last year and has done well this year.

    And yes, Rio and Nemanja were almost unbeatable for a few years.

    But Rio isn't getting any younger, and Jonny still has occasional lapses of concentration. Whereas Chris Smalling was a giant this afternoon. Assuming Vidic is first choice, as captain, and now he's fit, he and Smalling should be the preferred pairing. 

De Gea Should Be No. 1 Goalkeeper

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    OK, so we've said it before, and we will keep saying it until Sir Alex gets it.

    David De Gea should be the undisputed No. 1.

    Forget about Mignolet or Begovic. And forget about De Gea being barely 22.

    It's irrelevant.

    This guy is one of the best shot-stoppers in the world already. He has sorted out his problems in the air. Yes, he chooses to punch, but that is effective also.

    Even when he made a few mistakes in his early matches last season, people were overlooking the fact that he was making saves that other guys simply wouldn't make.

    His anticipation, agility and reflexes are awesome.

    Anders Lindegaard is an able No. 2, but unless he wants to leave to get more games, United don't need another keeper. Even then, Ben Amos is coming back next summer, and he is a more than adequate deputy given that De Gea should be playing most games.

    So please, Sir Alex, at least stop tinkering with your goalkeepers. Now that Vidic is back, United have a chance for a settled defence.

    They have a formula that works in midfield, with Carrick (or Fletcher as deputy), playing alongside Cleverley, Anderson and probably even Powell as the season moves on.

    Up front they are scoring goals for fun...literally. Rooney and Van Persie are still refining their partnership while Welbeck and Hernandez wait in the wings.

    Ship out Nani, bring in Zaha and Strootman and United might just be unbeatable.

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