It’s the season of goodwill, but there may be little of it at Old Trafford for former Manchester United boss David Moyes when his Sunderland team arrives on Boxing Day. There has been a feeling of indifference towards Sir Alex Ferguson’s hapless successor in the period since he was sacked in 2014. Moyes was hopelessly out of his depth at United, and although his dismissal was handled poorly, it was absolutely the right thing to do. The Scot contributed heavily to the club’s post-Fergie malaise, and should never have been given the job in the first place. Much of the blame has been levelled at the powers who appointed him. As such, there wasn’t a substantial amount of disdain towards the Scot. Until now.
Moyes returns to Old Trafford for the first time just after Christmas, but has chosen to direct his pre-match words at the club he briefly managed. There is the now repeated rhetoric about “unfair treatment,” continues to claim that he was not afforded adequate time in the job, and takes a swipe at the club’s transfer policy – an apparent break with “tradition.”
“They were a football club who enjoy traditions with the way they spent. They didn’t try to compete with all the other clubs,” Moyes said earlier this week. “They were a club with great traditions, where they tended to pick British managers. That tradition has now gone.”
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]It escapes Moyes that his disastrous term was the catalyst for the change he criticises. He was the man tasked with maintaining standards at Old Trafford, but his calamitous failure meant that the club had to build again from the ground up.[/blockquote]
The fact remains Moyes took the champions and turned the team into a laughing stock in a remarkably short space of time. It also escapes Moyes that his disastrous term was the catalyst for the change he criticises. He was the man tasked with maintaining standards at Old Trafford, but his calamitous failure meant that the club had to build again from the ground up. Now, part way into that rebuilding process, Moyes returns to face a United side that is finally hitting some form.
The Scot also forgets that he spent £30m on Marouane Fellaini, after his scattergun approach failed to secure the services of Gareth Bale, Cesc Fabregas or Toni Kroos.
Back to the present, and the Reds have overcome two tough tests at Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion, and now head on to a pair of very winnable home fixtures against Sunderland and Middlesbrough to close out the year.
José Mourinho will be well aware that these are the kind of games that have been his side’s undoing this season. Frustrating draws against Burnley, Stoke City and West Ham United have left the Reds clinging to the coat-tails of the top four. The past few weeks have gone some way to closing the gap, but now Mourinho’s team must show that it has overcome a goalscoring profligacy and can put teams to the sword at Old Trafford.
It has taken some time, but Mourinho now seems to know his preferred team, and the continuity in selection has allowed an eye-catching style of play to develop. Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have developed a promising understanding, and perhaps more importantly, look like two of several leaders emerging on the pitch. On-field leadership has been absent at United since Fergie departed in 2013, and its re-emergence can also be credited to the evergreen Michael Carrick, as well as fan favourite Ander Herrera.
Mourinho also commands credit for this turnaround, with team spirit now higher than it has been for some time. Morale will only rise further if United can close out 2016 with two victories.
Moyes deserves praise for at least instilling some fight into a Sunderland team that looked doomed in the early weeks of the season. The Black Cats are still in a perilous situation, but Moyes has improved a limited side, and three wins from four have left Sunderland just a point from safety.
Moyes will, however, arrive at Old Trafford with a depleted squad. United loanee Adnan Januzaj is ineligible, and midfielder Jan Kirchoff has been ruled out for 12 weeks after undergoing knee surgery.
Moyes’ strategy is to make Sunderland more than the sum of its parts, and United fans can fully expect the visitors to “make it as difficult as possible” for Mourinho’s men to break through defensive lines. Jurgen Klopp described Sunderland as the most negative team he had ever faced, and if the north east side executes the game-plan effectively it could be a testing afternoon for United.
Left-back Patrick van Aanholt was the Mackems key man in defeat of Watford last week, and the adventurous defender’s ability to service Jermaine Defoe and Victor Anichebe could be the visitors’ best chance of leaving Old Trafford with a result. Sunderland’s main priority will be to frustrate United, and the longer the game progresses without a United breakthrough, the more confident Sunderland will become. An early goal would be most welcome.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly are expected to be back in the match-day squad after picking up injuries, with the Armenian’s return particularly exciting given his explosive form in recent weeks. Mkhitaryan is a contender to start, although Mourinho may be reluctant to alter the side that comfortably swept West Brom aside. Still, the midfielder’s form before his injury may be too good for the manager to ignore.
United subs: Romero, Bailly, Blind, Fellaini, Rooney, Lingard, Rashford
Sunderland subs: Mannone, Larsson, Robson, O’Shea, Ansoro, Honeyman
Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo continue to defy expectations, meaning the returning Bailly will likely start on the bench. Matteo Darmian appears to have gained favour with Mourinho, despite many supporters remaining unconvinced by the Italian. Darmian almost registered the world’s most unconventional assist for Jesse Lingard at West Brom.
Carrick has enjoyed a week’s rest, ensuring the veteran retains his place in United’s three man midfield, with bigger questions to be addressed regarding who starts further forward. Jesse Lingard staked a claim with a fine performance at the Hawthorns, but a game of this type could call for the craft and elegance of Juan Mata. The Spaniard has the talent to unlock what will be a substantially conservative Sunderland outfit.
Ibrahimovic has been United’s match winner in recent weeks, as the 35-year-old continues to silence critics across the board. More goals from the Swede should ensure that Moyes’ return to Old Trafford will be as he became accustomed to there – thoroughly miserable.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: S Burt, A Nunn
Fourth official: L Mason
United 2 – 0 Sunderland