AFTER last season’s heroics against the same opponents, Sunderland supporters left the Stadium of Light this evening slightly disappointed that their side was unable to see off Manchester United once more.
That says much about the dramatic collapse in standards at Old Trafford, with Louis van Gaal presiding over a squad that looks further away from regaining a Champions League place than ever. But it also underlines the red-and-white optimism that has carried over from last season’s Great Escape and survived the opening two matches of the new campaign, both of which have now ended in a draw.
Further rebuilding work is required before the transfer window closes next Monday, but this increasingly looks like a Sunderland team heading in the right direction. It certainly boasts much more spirit and organisation than was the case for much of last season.
Having fallen behind to Juan Mata’s close-range strike despite dominating the opening stages, the Black Cats refused to be cowed and claimed a deserved equaliser when Jack Rodwell headed home his first goal for the club on the half-hour mark.
Chances from that point onwards were at a premium, but Sunderland continued to pass neatly and restricted Manchester United to a handful of half-chances that never really looked like troubling Vito Mannone.
That they never really threatened a second-half goal of their own was a disappointment, but parity with any Manchester United side is not to be sniffed at, even if the current vintage is more limited than anything that has represented the Old Trafford side since the early days of the Sir Alex Ferguson era in the 1980s.
Today’s opponents are expected to be two of the busiest Premier League sides ahead of the transfer deadline, but at least Sunderland can already claim to have assembled the core of a side that is capable of carrying them forward this season.
The need for another forward and centre-half is obvious, but recent arrival Will Buckley enjoyed a successful debut on the right and Santiago Vergini’s return at right-back solved some of the defensive problems that were apparent at the Hawthorns on the opening weekend.
The Black Cats remain a work in progress, but with less than a week of the transfer window to go, Manchester United cannot even claim to be that. And it’s hard to see how the £75m signing of Angel Di Maria is going to plug the gaping holes that were apparent in the visitors’ defence and midfield as they failed to win for the second week in succession.
Van Gaal’s decision to field three centre-halves is an acknowledgment of the lack of defensive quality at his disposal, and from the moment Ashley Young stabbed an awful first-minute back-pass into Connor Wickham’s path, the uncertainty and lack of cohesion in the Manchester United defence was apparent.
Young and Antonio Valencia, who was at fault for Sunderland’s goal, are clearly not cut out to be wing-backs, while Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are still to prove they are anywhere close to being top-class central defenders. Throw in youngsters Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane, who was forced to step in for the injured Smalling before half-time, and you have a defensive unit that is as weak as just about any in the top-flight.
There were gaps throughout the visitors’ defensive third, with Wickham and Buckley enjoying particular joy whenever they pulled to the outside of the widest of the centre-halves.
Wickham also cut inside to positive effect, and should really have fired Sunderland into a 16th-minute lead when he raced on to Buckley’s incisive through ball, only to scuff a weak shot straight at David De Gea.
Sunderland were already in the ascendant at that stage, but despite having barely threatened the Black Cats’ penalty area, Manchester United claimed an undeserved lead with their first meaningful attack.
Valencia surged past Patrick van Aanholt close to the right touchline, and after his low cross flicked off the hugely-impressive Lee Cattermole, Mata stole ahead of Seb Larsson to tap the ball home.
Larsson lost his man far too easily in the penalty area, but van Aanholt’s failure to challenge Valencia was even more of a concern given that the Dutch full-back had also been at fault as Saido Berahino scored West Brom’s second goal at the Hawthorns eight days earlier. For all that van Aanholt’s overlapping runs have been a major factor in Sunderland’s opening two games, he will be a liability if he does not prevent opposition players from running beyond him.
Having fallen behind, it took the hosts ten minutes or so to regroup, but Manchester United’s nervousness meant they were always going to get opportunities to get back into the game, and they duly took one on the half-hour mark.
Buckley’s positive running against the hapless Young forced a corner, and when Valencia appeared to lose the flight of Larsson’s delivery, Rodwell was able to plant a powerful downward header beyond De Gea.
The former Manchester City midfielder was purchased to enhance Sunderland’s goalscoring threat from midfield, and while heading home direct from a corner might not be his forte, a goal from his first two games represents a positive introduction.
His header ensured Sunderland were level at the interval, and they almost claimed the lead six minutes after the restart courtesy of a helping hand from Blackett. Wickham juggled the ball in the area before getting his shot away, and Blackett diverted the ball just past the base of his own post with De Gea stranded.
A goal at that stage would have asked some serious questions of Manchester United, but van Gaal’s side raised their game in the early stages of the second half and began to dominate possession.
Mata was their key creative outlet, with Sunderland’s centre-halves unsure whether to follow his drifting runs or hold their position close to the edge of the penalty area.
On the whole they made the right decisions, although John O’Shea was fortunate not to be punished for a dreadful 62nd-minute error that might have resulted in Manchester United reclaiming the lead had Young’s desire to go to ground at every conceivable opportunity not reared its head again.
O’Shea’s senseless square ball afforded Young a clear run on goal, but when Wes Brown went charging in to atone for his team-mate’s error, the erstwhile England international flung himself over his opponent’s leg looking for a penalty. The contact that ensued was of Young’s own making, and referee Martin Atkinson rightly booked him for diving.
Sunderland’s self-inflicted problems did not end there however, and when Brown played the rest of his defence into trouble with 12 minutes left, Vito Mannone was forced to charge from his line to deny Young again.