Manchester United recorded their fourth successive Premier League win with a comfortable 3-1 victory over Sunderland at Old Trafford.
Jose Mourinho made just two changes from the win over West Bromwich Albion last time out, with Daley Blind replacing Matteo Darmian at left-back and Juan Mata starting instead of Wayne Rooney, who missed out completely. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was back in the squad after injury but only deemed fit enough to be named as a substitute.
The pattern of this match was fairly predictable right from the outset. Manchester United had all of the ball, Sunderland sat deep in a low defensive block and hoped to threaten in counter-attacking situations. With the visitors employing such a defensively minded system, there was no space in behind for United to exploit. The breakthrough would have to come from intelligent movement and creative use of possession. As a result, United’s wide players were drawn into central areas looking for the ball and made the game very narrow.
Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard showed great movement in the first half, interchanging with United’s midfield three throughout, but rarely created clear-cut chances. With so many players in such a small area of the field, it became increasingly difficult to create any space in the attacking third and for the most part, Sunderland were comfortable dealing with any threats posed to them in those central positions.
As the half developed, the importance of the full-backs grew. Daley Blind and Antonio Valencia had the freedom of Old Trafford to push higher and higher up the pitch and offered Manchester United an alternative threat in wide areas. With Mata and Lingard moving inside, the space opened up out wide and became United’s clearest route to goal.
When they did get the ball in advanced areas, the same issue manifested itself in a different way. Blind and Valencia got into crossing positions, put the ball into the box and it was dealt with comfortably by the Sunderland centre-backs who outnumbered United’s aerial threats in the penalty area. The ball would be cleared, recycled by Carrick or Herrera and the process would repeat itself. Fortunately for United, Daley Blind was able to find the back of the net in the closing moments of the half to open the game up and end this repetitive attack vs defence cycle.
The shape of United’s team was the same throughout and relied heavily on scoring the opening goal. Lingard and Mata playing in central areas in order to support Ibrahimovic, Pogba and Herrera dominant in midfield as they supplied the forward players, with Blind and Valencia offering the only genuine attacking width. Their presence in advanced areas also prevented Anichebe and Borini from supporting Sunderland’s lone forward. Once Blind scored the opening goal and Sunderland were forced to commit to more adventurous phases of play, United found more space in attacking areas and emphasised their dominance with further goals.
With the score only one-nil at half-time, the game devolved into a scrappy affair in the period immediately after the break. Sunderland came out and started to play, searching for an equaliser to get them back in the game. Once they came under pressure, United started to lose their fluidity and lost some of their composure in possession. They started to play more long passes, riskier passes forward that bypassed the midfield players and they were unable to transition from defence to attack with any sharpness.
After a 15 minute period that saw Manchester United lose control of the football match, Jose Mourinho made a positive substitution that took his side to a different level. Welcome, Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
In the 31 minutes he was on the pitch, Mkhitaryan created three chances, made two crosses, had two shots and scored one spectacular goal. His impact in open play was immediate and United regained control of the games soon as he joined the action.
In the final half an hour of the match, Manchester United completed 91% of their passes, compared to 85% in the fifteen minutes before Mkhitaryan was involved. They also completed more passes in the opposition half, attempted fewer long passes and played at a faster tempo, encouraged by their ability to link midfield to attack and support Zlatan Ibrahimovic with runners from midfield. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s pace and power gave United an added dimension and his technical qualities were exactly what United needed to capitalise on the space that was opening up in the game as Sunderland pressed further forward.
Manchester United have started to get the wins that their performances have deserved and they sit just behind the leading back going into the New Year. The momentum is firmly with Mourinho’s side as they look to qualify for the Champions League. Summer signings performing well, a settled back four looking confident and solid, goals being scored at one end and being kept out at the other, there is plenty to be positive about at Manchester United. The next challenge is to reel in the sides above them. The only way to do that is by winning matches.