There are at least a couple of ways to assess Manchester United’s performance in Ukraine this week. That, as David Moyes and captain Nemanja Vidić have oft expressed, United’s defensive solidity and safety-first approach was key to securing a point in a tough away fixture. The alternate theory is less complimentary, although equally compelling: that the quality, or lack thereof, of Moyes’ squad has stripped the Scot’s confidence to such an extent that he no longer trusts to an open game against even middling opponents.
Good job that United faces nothing of the sort this weekend, cynics might add, with the Reds visiting managerless relegation-threatened Sunderland for what must surely be an open three points.
But there is more at stake for Moyes than Premier League position alone, important though that is even at this early stage of the campaign. After all, three league defeats on the spin would be a first for United in more than a decade.
And if the Reds cannot afford to drop further behind in the title race then the club’s new manager has little room to play with when it comes to confidence; of his players, of the media, and the club’s supporters. Indeed, defeat on Wearside could leave United close to the bottom three by the weekend’s conclusion.
Crisis? Now that would be a crisis.
Yet, Moyes is far more upbeat in his prognosis, speaking this week of his confidence not just in his players, but the club’s choice of new manager. Well, he would say that.
Still, the 50-year-old has made little secret of his desire for new blood – of the type and quality to go straight into the first team rather than pad out an already large squad. Whether Moyes achieves that result this January is another question it seems.
“Look, the quality of the players here is really top-end,” said the Scot. “They are great players to work with but, undoubtedly, we will, in time, try and make that better – the job is to make progress.
“They won the league last year but I want to try and progress on that, try to win it again and try to win the cups if possible as well.
“We’ll also look to add to the squad if the right players become available. I’ll look at January but I wouldn’t want people to have big expectations of what we would sign or do in January because I don’t think January has, in the main, been a great month to sign really at the top.”
Barely a week after executive vice president Ed Woodward briefed media outlets that Moyes’ transfer budget is substantial the manager has scotched thoughts of a spending frenzy in M16 this winter. It all sounds so familiar.
Whatever activity happens – or doesn’t – in January, Moyes has a substantial squad from which to select for the trip to the north east. While Rio Ferdinand and Tom Cleverley remain injury doubts, Wayne Rooney should return. The striker sat out United’s draw in Donetsk after he took a blow to his shin in training.
United’s back four should select itself after a solid performance in Ukraine, while Moyes is likely to revert to four across midfield for the Saturday evening kick-off. Michael Carrick, Marouanne Fellaini and two from Shinki Kagawa, Ashley Young, Nani and Antonio Valencia will make up United’s engine room.
Sunderland, meanwhile, has enjoyed a mini revival under temporary manager Kevin Ball. Sunderland owner Ellis Short made the sensible, if poorly timed, decision to fire Paolo di Canio, with the Italian widely believed to have lost all confidence in his methods throughout the Sunderland dressing room.
“It’s an important game we want to win. We’ll pick a team that we think can get a result,” said Moyes on Friday.
“I think I went there last time with Everton when Paolo Di Canio had just got the job and I lost in that game. It was probably one of the only games I lost at Everton in the last 11 or 12 matches. We didn’t lose that many.
“We go up there now with a new manager again, Kevin Ball. He’s very experienced, he knows the club and knows the players. He’ll have watched all the games and he’ll know what he has to do in this short-term period. Whether he gets the job or not Sunderland look as if they played quite well in the last couple of games.”
Loan striker Fabio Borini returns to the Sunderland squad after being ineligible to play against parent club Liverpool last weekend. However, former Red Wes Brown, together with Steven Fletcher and Andrea Dossena are all out, although John O’Shea will play.
Sunderland beat Peterborough in the league cup, but lost somewhat unfortunately to Liverpool last weekend in two matches under Ball. The 48-year-old coach in unlikely to take the job full-time, but the sense of relief ringing round the Stadium of Light against the Merseysiders was palpable.
Still, it is a match United should win – must some might say. Defeat might leave United on the edge of the relegation zone, while even a point is likely to see Moyes’ outfit some 10 points behind the Premier League leaders. Not a position from which many return to claim the title even at this stage of the season.
“We have to perform well at Sunderland, like we did against Shakhtar, in terms of our defending,” said captain Vidić. With the quality we have up front, we are always able to score goals. I think there’s no question about that. But we have to defend right and have the right mentality to ensure we can be in a good position.”
With a promising set of fixtures in the run up to Christmas the time is surely now for Moyes’ side to come out of its shell. The cocoon was self-imposed in Donetsk. No repeat necessary on Wearside.
Sunderland v Manchester United, Premier League, Stadium of Light, 5.30pm, 5 October 2013
Sunderland (4-5-1): Westwood; Gardner, O’Shea, Cuellar, Colback; Ki Sung-Yeung, Larsson, Celustka, Cattermole, Johnson; Altidore. Subs from: Mannone, Celustka, Valentin, El-Hadji Ba, Mavrias, Wickham, Ji Dong-Won, Giaccherini
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Fellaini, Welbeck; Rooney; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Buttner, Evans, Jones, Valencia, Anderson, Young, Januzaj, Giggs, Kagawa, Hernández
Sunderland 39 Draw 36 United 60
Referee: Chris Foy
Assistants: A Garratt, S Burt
Fourth Official: P Dowd
0 – 3