The first twenty minutes were quite awful, rigid passing from side to side, no penetration and very little in the way of entertainment. Then the fans let the team know in no uncertain terms that it was simply unacceptable with a resounding chorus of “ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK” and dogged abuse to any defender (well.. Jonny Evans) that even considered passing the ball backwards. The message got through and United looked a little more dangerous, with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young yet again creating goal scoring opportunities. The second half started quite slowly but without a doubt whatever van Gaal told them at half time did the trick, as chances were more prevalent with 24 of United’s 30 shots taken occurring in the second period. That statistic might shock many fans, considering the views that seem to be perpetuated on radio and social media by fans who have often had one beer too many, but it’s true. It’s OK, sometimes fans panic after a poor opening and can see nothing else, and sometimes they just like to go with popular opinion. Once again, United were not terrible for the whole game, they were in the first 20 minutes and they did need the kick up the arse they got around the 20 minute mark, but it was not as bad as it has been made out. It was a dominant, and routine home win that we would have given anything for last season, but maybe I just don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. It was not perfect but it was progress. So without further ado, here are my three heroes and three villains.
I can’t really mention Young without mentioning Valencia too. They were the only ones providing anything creative in the first half, with good runs down the flanks and attempting to get balls into the box any opportunity. They were the only ones to epitomise anything resembling the United spirit and should be commended. I have mainly put the emphasis here on Young as his influence continued (if not increased) in the second half. Young had four shots on goal in the first half, one of which was following his expert chest control only for a powerful shot to be cleared off the line and onto the bar by former red John O’Shea. He continued to drive with the ball at his feet taking players on in 5 instances, creating 4 goal scoring opportunities for teammates, and putting in 14 crosses (with a varied degree of success). He also did a good job defensively, winning half of his 6 tackle attempts, making 3 interceptions, 2 clearances, and a block. Ashley Young was without doubt my man of the match.
As with Young and Valencia, Blind must be mentioned with Ander Herrera. With very neat and tidy passing, especially in the second half, these two pushed United forward through the middle. The wings were already an effective avenue of attack, but the drive provided by these two in the second half caused Sunderland all sorts of problems. 92% passing… NINETY TWO PERCENT PASSING! Blind sets the standard for his teammates nearly every week in this sense, but what pleased me most was his average position on the pitch. His heat map shows he was most active around the D on the edge of Sunderland’s area. In the past I have urged Daley to take on more offensive responsibility against the lesser teams, and against Sunderland he did exactly that. He had two shots on goal, and created a further two chances for his teammates. He was the anchor that he always is but he did it in a much more advanced position and that was one of the most pleasing aspects of the game for me.
Angel Di Maria was not great, and his non-inclusion in the villain list below may surprise you, but the less said about Di Maria’s performance the better, and there were more poignant areas of concern for the long term that should be mentioned. His replacement however was a breath of fresh air. This was not the self-entitled, underperforming Adnan Januzaj that we heard from on a weekly basis through his agent in the period before Christmas. What has gone under the radar is van Gaal’s excellent man management with Januzaj. He brought him down a peg or two following terrible performances, but come January where rumblings of having to leave United to get more game time came about, van Gaal stood firm and made it clear he was needed and wanted. This was building a player back up after giving him a good dressing down, and against Sunderland we saw the benefits. Januzaj now knows that van Gaal will give him chances, but he also knows that the onus is on him to take those chances, and thats the way it should be. Straight from the off he was looking to go forward with the ball, running down the touchline and giving defenders the old Giggs shoulder dip. It was thanks to Januzaj’s attack first mentality that United’s second came about too, with one of his SIX shots being too hot to handle for Pantilimon who parried the ball onto the bonce of a grateful Wayne Rooney. He teamed up well with Antonio Valencia and has EARNED the right to play in the next game.
Not his worst performance in a red shirt, but that isn’t saying much. Where Chris Smalling on many occasions picked the ball up under pressure and drove forwards, Jonny seemed to always turn back and put unnecessary pressure on De Gea. Of his 9 passes back to the goalkeeper, 6 occurred in the first half, which I supposed indicates that the message that came with the chorus of boos got through his thick skull. Improvement in the second half also came in the form of one drive through the midfield that ended with a shot at goal and a couple of clean tackles on the half way line. The second half was much better than the first, but in all truth Sunderland did very little to trouble him.
Rojo has arguably been one of if not our best signing from the summer. A lot has been made this week about the number of mistakes he has made this season being on par with those of Jonny Evans, but what the analysts fail to mention is that he does not make costly mistakes. Not one goal has been conceded from a Rojo mistake this season and therein lies the difference. Despite his accomplished displays at centre back this season, he doesn’t look as comfortable playing at left back. There was a brilliant bit of attacking play involving Ashley Young steaming down the left wing after the play had been spread in the second half, and Young played a pass into space for where Marcos Rojo should have been galloping. Rojo was keeping up with Young but for some reason at the moment that mattered… he stopped. And therein lies the problem with Rojo at left back. He was absolutely gassed. He doesn’t have the stamina or attacking instincts of a Patrice Evra or even a Mikael Silvestre, and when Manchester United are playing at home against such lowly opposition as Sunderland, the full-backs quite simply need to be more offensive than defensive.
There were boos when he came off the pitch following winning the penalty. I don’t quite know why. Two minutes earlier people were BEGGING for him to be replaced. His touch was poor. His runs were non-existent. He created no chances. His stat sheet is literally a long string of zeros. I get that having made a contribution to the winning goal might have given him a bit of confidence, but in all reality he had to come off. This tweet pretty much sums it up perfectly:
Joke’s on Sunderland, Falcao would’ve probably missed that chance anyways..
— Jonas Giæver (@CheGiaevara) February 28, 2015
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