Sunderland 0 Man United 1: Lessons from a sombre Red Devils win
What did we learn from Manchester United's ultimately fruitless victory at Sunderland in the Premier League on Sunday?
When Manchester United have netted this season, it has not been uncommon to see Wayne Rooney’s name popping up on the videprinter. With the fate of the Premier League still undecided, the former Everton striker firmly piled the pressure on City with 20 minutes gone at the Stadium of Light. Phil Jones was given time and space to pick the perfect cross to the far post, and the 26-year-old comfortably headed home from close range. That goal brought up a personal milestone for Rooney as he ensured that this season would be his highest scoring campaign in the top-flight, with 27 goals. It also meant that Sunderland had now conceded nearly 30 per cent of goals in that way, the highest proportion in the league, and that the Red Devils took their total of headed strikes to 16. He had chances to double his tally, but somehow side-footed wide from three yards before Simon Mingolet made a good save in the opening stages of the second half. The debate over whether he is a natural striker continues to rumble on but you cannot fault his work rate, covering the fifth highest distance of all the Premier League strikers, with over 190 miles recorded in total.
In his programme notes, Martin O’Neill was keen to remind fans that Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool had all been beaten at the Stadium of Light and that his side would be desperately striving for a victory which could propel them into the top 10. Obviously it has to be considered that they were playing against the defending champions, but in the first half, the home side seemed to be content to let the visitors come forward. Surprisingly, former United striker Fraizer Campbell was deployed on the right-wing, meaning that O’Neill’s side lined up in a 4-5-1 formation, presumably to counter the threat posed by Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. During the opening 45 minutes, they only produced one clear-cut chance, which Campbell volleyed wide. The Black Cats manager clearly said some choice words to his players during the half-time interval as they came out with more of an attacking approach. Phil Bardsley’s effort was crucially blocked by Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra made a vital challenge to stop Stephane Sessegnon shooting. That tackle epitomised how crucial the French full-back is to United, with his season’s tackle completion rate well above the 70 per cent mark.
After missing the whole of pre-season due to an injury picked up during the Copa America and the arrival of Ashley Young, many feared that Antonio Valencia’s future lied away from Old Trafford. But the Ecuadorian has had impressive campaign, keeping the likes of Park Ji-Sung and Nani out of the side. He continued to show why Sir Alex Ferguson prefers him ahead of others: relentlessly twisting and turning inside the despairing efforts of former United full-back John O’Shea. While the positives outweighed the negatives for Valencia during this game, he failed to take advantage of goal-scoring opportunities, and this inconsistency in front of goal could be a worry. His wing wizardry and searing pace will always prove to be a threat to full-backs throughout the Premier League but it can be argued that an extra dimension needs to be added to his armoury.
Mignolet shows his class
When he joined the club in June 2010, big things were expected of Simon Mignolet and his reputation received a further boost. He made an encouraging start to life in English football, as he produced outstanding displays against Manchester City and Arsenal and keeping nine clean sheets in his opening season for the club. After recovering from an early-season injury picked up after colliding with Emile Heskey, the Belgian has done enough to oust Craig Gordon as the Black Cats’ first choice goalkeeper. He made a good start to this game, getting down well to tip away Valencia’s dangerous cross before making a smart stop from Ryan Giggs. The 23-year-old continued to impress in the second half as he denied Wayne Rooney a second and pulling off an impressive double stop from Giggs and Paul Scholes. Now established as his national team’s starting goalkeeper, he looks set to have a bright future ahead of him, and it won’t be long before the bigger clubs come calling for his services.