Louis van Gaal made three changes from the opening day defeat to Swansea, the biggest of which was the return of Dutch striker Robin van Persie. Antonio Valencia replaced the injured Jesse Lingard and Tom Cleverley was selected in place of the injured Ander Herrera.
Van Persie’s return gave United a strong looking attack, with Mata, Rooney and van Persie able to link up together again, but behind them the absence of new signings Rojo, Herrera and Shaw meant United’s midfield and defence looked worryingly fragile.
It was the midfield that was once again the source of all of United’s problems. Without the energy and technical quality of Ander Herrera there was nothing positive in the middle of the pitch. Once again Tom Cleverley will come in for a lot of criticism for his performance, and rightly so. The attacking players in front of him became crowded out and outnumbered by the Sunderland defenders because the ball was not played into dangerous areas with enough speed or precision. The reason the criticism falls on Cleverley’s head is not because the onus is on him to provide the creativity in the absence of Herrera.
It is not a case of jumping on the bandwagon, or making him out to be the scapegoat like was claimed last season, Tom Cleverley offers absolutely nothing in midfield. Looking at his passing map from the afternoon, you will see an absence of passes by Tom Cleverley in the final third of the pitch. The majority of his passes are horizontal, safe passes. He finds his man and has a relatively impressive pass completion rate of 90% but there is no risk involved here. He does not break the lines of the Sunderland midfield or defence and he does not provide any penetration. Taking a closer look at his passes, there is nothing into the penalty area and not so much as even a failed pass into an area of any significance. The worrying part is not the absence of key passes from Cleverley, but the lack of attempts too. It is forgivable to try the right things and see them intercepted, over hit or just executed incorrectly, but it is absolutely criminal to hide and to not take any risks whatsoever. This is Manchester United don’t forget.
Cleverley is not the only one who hid today. I can forgive bad performances, as I’m sure most United fans can. What I watched today was worse than that and it was typified by Antonio Valencia on the right hand side. In the first half, he made one fantastic contribution, the cross which led to Juan Mata’s goal. It looked as though the old Valencia had shown his face; raw speed to beat his man and a low cross into a dangerous area. It proved effective and it was an outlet on the right hand side which showed some promise. However, as the game wore on and United needed players to stand up and make something happen, Valencia withdrew into his shell again. Despite proving he had the beating of his man in the first half, he did not take on van Aanholt once in the second half, and instead resorted to endless backwards and sideways passes.
Looking at his passing map is the same as looking at Cleverley’s. Very few failed passes, but that only indicates a lack of risk in my eyes. Everything was safe, everything was backwards and nothing worried Sunderland. At no point did United get in between the lines of Sunderland’s team and create problems for them in dangerous areas. Louis van Gaal highlighted the biggest problem today as the ‘lack of creative passes’ and Cleverley and Valencia are perfect examples of that. It is easy to argue that they are not the attacking players, but it would also be wrong to do that. You cannot rely on Mata, van Persie and Rooney to win the game on their own, and the other players must act as a supporting cast. Today it felt as if they wanted to watch someone else win the game rather than doing it themselves.
The problem with the two players that I have mentioned under-performing is that it leaves United very little options elsewhere on the pitch. If they cannot work the ball through the midfield area and create chances, then they have to go out wide. When they sent the ball wide this afternoon, Valencia offered next to nothing as well, so the ball went side to side all afternoon and Sunderland handled everything with ease.
It is a worrying trend for United, poor against Swansea but worse again today. There are a few positives however. Jones looked commanding at the back, and Blackett looked like a player worthy of his first team status. Both centre-backs need to improve further if they are to be at the level that is required for Manchester United, but both were fantastic today and it was a promising performance in that respect. Secondly the return of Robin van Persie cannot be overstated. His first game back since the World Cup was always going to be rusty, but the sooner he is back to his sharpest the better. He adds real quality, and even in the odd glimpse today showed exactly why we need him alongside Wayne Rooney as opposed to Hernandez or Welbeck, who for the record added a little spark himself when he was introduced late on. Finally, the biggest positive from today was away from the match itself, with the news from Sky Sports News that a fee has reportedly been agreed for Angel Di Maria. With the mediocre performance on display this afternoon, his arrival will be a godsend. Di Maria will improve United, there’s no doubt about that, and I cannot wait for his debut.