If there was ever evidence that statistics can be deceiving then Manchester United’s unbeaten league run is the go-to example. The run now stretches to 19 games undefeated, but with little demonstrable progress to show for it. The Reds make the trip to Sunderland desperate to ensure that David Moyes is not the man to break the lossless streak.
Despite crashing out of the FA Cup, the Reds have not been defeated in the Premier League since a 4-0 drubbing at champions-elect Chelsea in October. However, an uplifting period over the New Year, which featured some delightful football and promising results, now seems to have faded from many supporters’ memories.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The Reds are undefeated in the league since a 4-0 drubbing at Chelsea in October. Yet, an uplifting period over the New Year has now faded from supporters’ memories.[/blockquote]
United’s brief flirtation with the heady heights of fifth was shortlived, as two uninspiring draws with West Bromwich Albion and Everton resurrected the team’s goalscoring profligacy. Indications that José Mourinho’s side was ready to blitz its way into the Premier League’s top four now seem in doubt, due to a combination of injuries and a frustrating loss of form.
Paul Pogba had looked physically drained for a number of games before pulling up with a muscle problem against FC Rostov, and his willingness to receive the ball and take responsibility was missed against both West Brom and in the first half of Everton’s visit to Old Trafford. Pogba returned in the second half of that encounter, but looked short of match fitness as United could only salvage a point against the Toffees.
The Frenchman will likely return to the starting line-up at the Stadium of Light, and will restore mobility and dynamism to a United midfield that has been painfully static in his absence. The ageing Michael Carrick can hardly be blamed for his diminished engine, and the pros and cons of playing Marouane Fellaini are hardly worth further debate, but the fact is that United has looked worse off in midfield without their world-record signing. Pogba has shouldered his fair share of criticism this season, and while he has not hit the heights expected, he has not been as ineffectual as some would contest.
However, he forms part of a worrying wider trend – one that existed before Mourinho took over at Old Trafford. There have been a series of players who were considered proven quality at other clubs who have come to United and failed to reach those levels again. Angel di Maria sparkled only briefly, while Radamel Falcao was an unmitigated disaster. And now, Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, lauded across Europe while at Juventus and Borussia Dortmund, are struggling to replicate that form in a red shirt. Both players have shown flashes of brilliance, but so did di Maria and even Memphis Depay. The club has spent eye-watering amounts of money, and it is a concern that, for whatever reason, the acquisitions are not producing on a regular basis.
On paper, a trip to struggling Sunderland looks like the ideal opportunity for the Reds to stabilise a league campaign that has shown signs of coming off the rails in recent weeks. The Black Cats are on a dismal run of form, and the emergence of David Moyes’ bizarre comments to a female BBC reporter created a media circus around the club that it could well have done without. United dispatched Sunderland comfortably at Old Trafford on Boxing Day, should further compound Moyes’ misery on Sunday.
After years of flirting with the drop, it looks as though Sunderland will finally relinquish Premier League status after some miserable years in the top flight. Despite having striker Jermaine Defoe recalled to the England squad, neither he nor any of his teammates have found the net in the past six league encounters. The Black Cats are currently 10 points adrift of safety and recent performances suggest the players know their situation is near irretrievable.
This is a fixture, however, in which Moyes will be desperate to impress. The Scot left United in 2014 with his reputation in tatters and he has done little since to piece it back together. Should Moyes achieve a result against his former club, no matter how insignificant in the long run, would mean a lot to the beleaguered Scot. Mourinho, by contrast, will hope that Sunderland have already accepted their fate and will provide little resistance.
Anything less than three points for Moyes’ side will be useless, and as such they must chase a win from the outset. Moyes is not a manager known for taking the bold approach to matches, but if his side does get on the front foot it should create space for the Reds to exploit.
Ex-Red John O’Shea is set to miss out for the home side, with the defender returning to Ireland following his father’s death. Adnan Januzaj, still on-loan from United, is ineligible to face his parent club.
After missing out during Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Everton, the excellent Antonio Valencia will return to Mourinho’s starting line-up. The aforementioned Pogba emerged from the bench as United rescued a point against the Toffees, and it would be a surprise should he not feature from the outset at Sunderland. Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney have been ruled out with minor knocks.
Mourinho rolled the dice and left out both Anthony Martial and Mkhitaryan in mid-week, and there can be little argument that the decision did not reflect well on the manager. United looked toothless and devoid of ideas for long periods, especially during the first half.
Sunderland subs from: Mannone, Djilobodji, Larsson, Khazri, Lescott, Gibson, Manquillo, Khazri, Gooch, Honeyman
United subs from: Romero, Darmian, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah, Fellaini, Carrick, Rashford
Mkhitaryan struggled to make a concerted impact when brought on, and the Armenian is suffering a disappointing slump following his explosive re-emergence at the turn of the year. The former Dortmund man has shown himself to be United’s most creative outlet when on-form, but despite scoring some spectacular goals he has not fully adjusted to his new surroundings. The Reds looked no better off without him, so the Armenian should be recalled on Sunday.
Marcus Rashford was given the nod ahead of Martial on the left-wing on Tuesday, but it is a role in which the teenager has rarely impressed. Rashford’s blistering pace makes him a tempting option on the flank, but the 19-year-old looks short of confidence and was given little change from Everton’s resilient rearguard. Rashford’s time will undoubtedly come as a central striker, but for now it looks as though persisting with the youngster on the wing is of no help to the player nor the team. Martial, although inconsistent, is a more comfortable operator on the flank.
The simple scenario facing Mourinho’s men is that they simply must beat Sunderland if the team is to retain any hope of finishing in the top four. United’s run-in is far from ideal, with matches against Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City still to come. The Reds have not excelled on the big occasion this campaign, which makes ties against struggling sides like Sunderland all the more important.
Referee: Craig Pawson
Assistants: I Hussin, R West
Fourth official: M Jones
Sunderland 0 – 2 United