Manchester United were sloppy, disjointed, sterile and dull but still managed to squeeze a victory out of an accommodating Sunderland side.
The decisive moment of the match came when Old Trafford old boys John O’Shea and Wes Brown combined to give United a penalty, after which the latter was sent off when the former should have been.
Prior to that second-half breakthrough and despite having James Wilson and Juan Mata on the bench, Louis van Gaal was, ludicrously, set to turn to Marouane Fellaini to win the game. The games featured chants of “attack, attack, attack” from the crowd and, although three points were claimed, the locals are not happy.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):
(GK) David De Gea, 7 — United’s No. 1 saved Connor Wickham’s early effort low to his left in a reminder of his ever-increasing quality. Overall, he had fewer calamitous defending errors to deal with than usual and will be pleased with a clean sheet. He is still easily United’s most important player.
(DF) Antonio Valencia, 7 — The stand-in right back continues to keep Rafael out of the team, and this was a good game for the Ecuadorian. His forward drives remained thunderous, although Jermaine Defoe was happy to hunt in the space he left behind.
(DF) Jonny Evans, 7 — He has endured criticism in recent weeks but was part of an immaculate defence which managed to keep out the veteran Defoe without too much difficulty. With Sunderland a man down in the second half, Evans pushed upfield optimistically in what was a confidence-building display after a torrid period.
(DF) Chris Smalling, 7 — A curious and unnecessarily risky throw-in early to De Gea notwithstanding, he had a solid performance. At his best, Smalling is the most composed of United’s defenders and his distribution on Saturday was as good as you will see.
(DF) Marcos Rojo, 7 — Playing at left-back, this was a characteristically pugnacious performance from the Argentinian, who enjoyed the relative freedom the defensive opponents provided him. Saw a second half header glance wide and it would be nice to see him develop into a defender with a consistent goal threat in the manner of Steve Bruce or Nemanja Vidic.
(MF) Daley Blind, 6 — This was a typical showing from the Dutchman but it was also rather unimpressive. Blind was unable to influence the flow of the match and his passing, while solid, is hugely predictable. This led to a couple of cheap concessions of possession that fortunately did not turn into anything more troublesome. The now-fit Michael Carrick should regain his place.
(MF) Ashley Young, 8 — Starting on the left wing and free of defensive duties, Young spent the afternoon terrorizing Sunderland’s full backs and was United’s best player. His pace and delivery remain potent weapons and his crossing was the biggest threat in an otherwise frustrating first half while he was unfortunate not to score when his daisy-cutting shot was turned onto the cross bar by O’Shea.
(MF) Ander Herrera, 7 — The midfielder was a hard-working and effervescent presence and he offers United imagination in areas where they so often seem to be bereft of ideas. An extended run in the team with Falcao and Wayne Rooney would surely lead to more goals coming through the middle.
(MF) Angel Di Maria, 5 — British football’s record signing was replaced by the 20-year-old Adnan Januzaj at half-time and his current situation needs no more explanation than that. Starting on the right wing, his early corners at least found United players, which made a change after last week’s blunt deliveries. However, he was easily dispossessed early and his shooting and general play didn’t improve from there. His star has fallen a long way in nine months; it is officially time to worry.
(FW) Radamel Falcao, 6 — He appeared happier to play ahead of Rooney rather than alongside Robin van Persie but still endured a poor start to the afternoon. It was, though, his deft control and swift turn that won United’s penalty. That happened just as he was about to be substituted and he left the field to a standing ovation. His performance didn’t entirely merit it, but his contribution made a decisive difference.
(FW) Wayne Rooney, 8 — The captain had a wearisome first half but ultimately came up with two goals (which ended an eight-game league drought) in a match-winning effort. His headed second was the first goal in open play from a United striker in almost a month, and he can send no clearer message to the manager than that regarding his preferred position.
(MF) Adnan Januzaj, 7 — Certainly more lively than Di Maria, and his speed earned United a couple of second-half corners immediately. His contribution in open play was also more substantial and he was involved in the second goal. The youngster has a great brain as well as being a deceptive runner and was a constant threat to Sunderland’s 10 men. He more than did enough to merit a start in United’s next match.
(FW) Marouane Fellaini, 5 — His arrival was not met with wild enthusiasm from the crowd and the relative hostility probably didn’t help his game. Fellaini skied his first scoring opportunity and was unable to get on the end of any of the inevitable high balls directed his way. A late chance went straight at the goalkeeper; one can’t help but think that Falcao would have scored the same opportunity.
(MF) Juan Mata, NR — Mata only enjoyed five minutes of play and was unable to make any significant impact. He hasn’t started a league game since the middle of January and must surely be wondering where his future lies. Probably not at Old Trafford.