Manchester United drew a fourth Premier League away game this season, with an early season blip becoming a pattern. The broken sewer in the United dressing room before the match hardly helped the Reds’ focus, although the proverbial shower flowed predominantly on the pitch, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side fortunate to escape with a point.
The dressing room disaster aside – which delayed proceedings by almost half an hour – United produced another frustrating, shapeless display on Wearside. Indeed, the Reds could easily have lost the game in a first half that Steve Bruce’s outfit thoroughly bossed. So much so that Ferguson declared himself happy with a point, after United’s worst performance of the season to date.
“We had to defend very well and the pleasing thing for me is that the back four were fantastic,” said Ferguson.
“The consistency of not losing is something we can take. I am not pleased but I am satisfied. Sunderland had the most chances in the game and I have to say we were fantastic defensively.
“That’s the area in which we have been leaking goals and throwing games away this season, so I am pleased with that.
“It was a very determined Sunderland team, their home record this season has been very, very good.”
United maintained a record in which Ferguson’s side has lost on Wearside since 1997 but has now taken just four from 12 points on the road, drawing at both Bolton Wanderers and Sunderland, where Ferguson’s side won last season. It points, even at this early stage of the season, to a frustrating level of inconsistency even if United remains undefeated.
Ferguson’s side began with four changes to that which beat Valencia on Wednesday, with Michael Owen and Federico Macheda paired in attack for the first time this season. Wayne Rooney, who Ferguson has insisted takes a rest, remained in Manchester, while Dimitar Berbatov dropped to the bench along with Patrice Evra, who has looked jaded this season.
The changes appeared to break whatever momentum United picked up in Spain, with Sunderland dominating the opening 45. Both Steed Malbranque, who brought a fine save out of Edwin van der Sar, and then former Liverpool winger Bolo Zenden could have scored in the opening half hour. While the Dutchman struck the upright from 25 yards, captain Nemanja Vidic also cleared Manchester city loanee Nedum Onuoha’s effort off the line.
It was a frantic start by the hosts who had United under the cosh from the start, in front of a disappointingly sparse 41,000 crowd.
By contrast United offered almost nothing in attack, with Owen completely ineffective on his recall to the starting 11. It was perhaps no surprise then that Berbatov replaced the former Liverpool striker at half time. On this evidence critics of the crueller variety might point the Owen’s brace against Scunthorpe United in the Carling Cup and wonder if he had found his level.
If United found a new impetus in the second period then chances still flowed for the hosts, with Darren Bent firing low to van der Sar’s right and just past the post, and then Malbranque’s shot deflecting off Rio Ferdinand and over the bar.
Berbatov fashioned perhaps United’s best chance, firing low and wide from 25 yards, while Nani’s vicious effort drew a save – one of very few – from home ‘keeper Simon Mignolet.
Even Scholes, recalled to the side after a calf injury, produced an off-colour display, with fellow midfielder Anderson unable to build on the performance in Valencia. The Brazilian is unlikely to have enjoyed being shunted to the left wing for much of the game.
“We had no attacking purpose in the first 25 minutes of the match,” added Ferguson, whose side could slip five points behind Chelsea if the Londoners beat Arsenal at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
“It wasn’t until towards the end of the first half that we got any semblance of keeping possession of the ball. In the second half we did a lot better, there was more threat by us, but they had chances from set-pieces.”
The draw leaves plenty of questions hanging over United, with the Reds not playing again until Ferguson’s side hosts West Bromwich Albion in a fortnight’s time. By then Ferguson may have a fit Rooney available and will hope that the former Evertonian awakes from the longest period poor form in his career.
If United has fixed the leaky defence with Ferdinand’s return then the inconsistent levels of performance remain. There is much to ponder over the international break.
Sunderland – 451 – Mignolet; Bardsley, Turner, Onuoha, Bramble; Cattermole, Zenden (Reid 82), Malbranque (Gyan 82), Henderson, Al-Muhammadi; Bent.
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, O’Shea; Nani, Fletcher, Scholes, Anderson (Bébé, 80); Macheda (Hernández, 64), Owen (Berbatov, 45).
Man-of-the-match: van der Sar
Possession: Sunderland 50% – 50% Man Utd
Attempts: 14 – 10
On target: 8 – 4
Corners: 10 – 4
Fouls: 10 – 6