The pain continued today for a new-look but same-old-same-old Manchester United as they were held to a 1-1 draw at Sunderland.
Juan Mata was able to tip home early against the run of play, but a feisty and at times far better Sunderland side quickly came back into the game courtesy of Jack Rodwell.
United again fielded a three-man back line. And again, they hardly looked comfortable, with Chris Smalling particularly poor on the day. Time and time again, United’s wingbacks — Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia – were forced back to form a flat-back five, denying the Manchester giants any way to break the pressure. United were reduced to playing short passes sideways, in turn ensuring that both Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney had to drop back further in order to collect the ball, reducing their influence on the match greatly.
But after a promising opening period that saw Lee Cattermole miss wide left and Connor Wickham test keeper David De Gea, United scored out of nothing. Phil Jones pushed the ball up wide to Valencia, and his cross was deflected around Vito Mannone. Larsson, caught in no man’s land, could not cut off Mata’s run and suddenly, United had an unlikely lead.
That would not last. Young continued to make foolish passes, and Jones came under increasing pressure in the center of the defense. Larsson would finally chuck in a routine corner, and Rodwell, beating van Persie, put home a free header to draw the Black Cats level.
After the break, Sunderland continued to ask questions. Wickham nearly stole a goal five minutes in when he beat sub Michael Keane – on for the woeful Smalling – only to see young Tyler Blackett scramble the ball out, missing his own post by inches.
United rarely threatened in the half at all, and when van Persie – still not 100% fit – had to be removed, what remaining danger they presented evaporated. Sunderland always looked the more likely to score, but their own lack of quality up top prevented them from fully taking advantage.
Van Gaal at least now has a point under his belt at United, who remain in the bottom half of this very young league table. They are widely expected to complete the signing of Angel Di Maria from Real Madrid for what is reported to be a British record $125m transfer this week, and rumors continue to swirl around other replacements as the clock ticks down on this transfer window.
But what United look in dire need of is a solid central defender, a defense-minded midfielder and moreover, someone in the middle who can link up play. Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher continue to look very disjointed today in the heart of the park, and Young’s inability to play box to box puts tremendous pressure on that fragile back line. The best defender today was Valencia – meaning that his offensive offerings were almost totally removed from the game.
For Gus Poyet, the news is far sunnier. His Sunderland side, while grinding at times and certainly lacking a true impact forward, can pass the ball about and look far more than the sum of their parts. They’ve now drawn their first two games and while no one will confuse them for royalty, they look as if they will be improved over last season’s team, which flirted with disaster all year.
United now have 48 hours to clean themselves up to face tiny MK Dons on Tuesday in the League Cup. Sunderland move on to a date with Birmingham in the same competition the following day. But for most fans, all eyes will now swivel to the other side of Manchester and a big game on Monday between the champions, City, and a rising Liverpool side that is leaving the Luis Suarez era behind.