A trip to the new Roker Park (still can’t deal with Stadium of Light) saw United undertake the second game in what many have already dubbed a ‘troubled’ season. Even van Gaal noted how the tables have turned from the heady days of the pre-season tour to the doldrums following the defeat to Sunderland.


In: Cleverley, Valencia and van Persie.
Out: Herrera, Lindgard and Hernandez.


  • Laborious, slow and unimaginative; front to back.
  • Two defensive shapes:
  1. First half, United were set up very wide seemingly at odds with distances van Gaal asks from a back three. Smalling in particular wandered frequently
  2. Second half they dropped deep giving the midfield too much distance to cover to reach the attackers.
  • The middle centre half either Smalling or Jones failed to take advantage of the space left in front of them. The space was vast too and a more creative defender would have lapped it up.
  • The number of injuries took its toll on the options available to van Gaal.
  • Top stat combination of Cleverley to Rooney and vice-versa showed how deep Rooney had to drop to become involved.
  • Concerning is the passes to shots ratio: 175 to 10 for United (compared to 81-11 for Sunderland)
  • Compared to last season we’re currently more compact whereby we are positioned slightly higher up at the back but no further up in the front.


C’mon United! The desire to put on a good performance was palpable yet the injuries United had checked that desire with hesitation and apprehension.

As expected, United were a back three which set out very wide, wider than normal . This contradicted the statement van Gaal recently made in his interview with Gary Neville, “when you play like that it’s always less than 15 metres [between the three centre-backs], and then it’s more easy to defend when you communicate good.” The defenders were at least 20 metres apart and with their poor passing this distance left them vulnerable to the interception.The passing from the back needs to improve.

Sunderland passing - C shaped, exploiting the wing backs

Sunderland passing – C shaped, exploiting the wing backs

A notable point of Sunderland’s approach was that they pressed the outside two centre backs when in possession, (Blackett the most) but allowed Smalling to play out. This is a tactic which is conflicting for United. The space is for Smalling to take the ball out into but he doesn’t have the confidence or it appears the technique to do so.

It wasn’t just the defence that kept wide, both Young and Valencia hugged the touchline but not too high in front of the defence, leaving them to run at the Sunderland fullbacks.

So to complete what was shaping up as a 3-4-1-2 was Fletcher and Cleverley. You wonder if van Gaal thinks Fletcher is his new van Bommel in the way he covers the defence but not in his distribution which unfortunately was occasionally wayward but mainly ineffective.

Boom! A goal from nowhere. It came about after the first sign of anything positive. Valencia  attacked the space behind the impressive van Aanholt and his low cross found Mata who’d lost his marker Larsson.

United goal - success against van Aanholt saw Valencia attack space behind

United goal – success against van Aanholt saw Valencia attack space behind

This didn’t deter Sunderland who were now pressing high and were enjoying the majority of their success by marking high and pressing the left. It was Vergini and particularly Buckley who pressed and won the corner which led to the set piece goal for Sunderland to make it 1-1 as Rodwell lost his marker Valencia.

Sunderland’s 4-2-3-1 stifled United with Cattermole and Rodwell the flies in the ointment. Snuffing out what little threat United did offer, and being adventurous in bringing the ball forward. They pressed Fletcher and Cleverley quickly who in contrast lacked energy as they sat much flatter and squarer.

Sunderland pressing - Rodwell intercepts Fletcher

Sunderland pressing – Rodwell intercepts Fletcher

Despite Rodwell and Cattermole playing well, United didn’t help themselves. The space between the front two/three was too great, too often. The front three have been worked around for this current formation and shape but the rest are not up to scratch…yet. The service was poor to them but so was their running off the ball. Awkward. They came deep too frequently. However, there must be belief in the noises coming from the United camp, van Gaal and van Persie notably, that this team will improve so time must be given.

Using space and being on the ball. Discuss:

As the half drew in the number of times United took the ball to a certain position and then pushed it out wide was frustrating. Cleverley or Fletcher took the ball to a certain point and lacked the creativity to work the space, thus pushing it out wide to ineffective wingers.

Towards the back Jones and Smalling had plenty of space to push on but chose not. Rather they dithered and pushed the ball wide or even back, looking anything but accomplished.

At the front, the space available behind the front two wasn’t taken advantage of. With the more compact shape than last season you would imagine the play to be similar to an accordion; push in then expand out into the space available. This didn’t happen.

Note. Smalling replaced with Keane.


Little improvement in tempo and penetration was punctuated by the Young penalty/dive incident but a few phases earlier the onus should have been on van Persie who should have shot with his right.

The game needed to be taken to Sunderland and on 63 minutes Januzaj replaced Fletcher and Welbeck, van Persie. This saw Januzaj with the brief to increase tempo but mainly introduce creativity from further back on the pitch.

 “I have said that we need creative passing and I thought Januzaj could provide that. That is the reason.” van Gaal post match. This position is not unusual to Januzaj, he has played there for Belgium.

Welbeck brought a greater inclination to run past the defenders and he took a much wider position when compared to van Persie’s typically narrow positioning.

Statistically speaking it was Cleverley who was involved most (never believe statistics!) but it was the absentees which stood out more and Rooney needed to be more positive and try to break the defensive block.

Rooney influence  - Note how little influence Rooney has in the 18 yard box

Rooney influence – Note how little influence Rooney has in the 18 yard box

A frustrating element of play and it was surprising considering the success this yielded in the first half, was Valencia’s reluctance to run to the byline. The stop start nature of his approach play allows the opposition to set up their defensive block whereas a run to the byline would drag those same defenders towards their goal and create space around the box for an approaching attacker. Of course you need the personnel to take such chances should they be presented!

Valencia influence  - compared to the left, the right wasn’t as troubled but the reluctance to attack the byline is apparent

Valencia influence – compared to the left, the right wasn’t as troubled but the reluctance to attack the byline is apparent


A few areas for improvement following this game.

Starting from the back it appears that there’s a degree of apprehension when in possession. Even de Ge looked nervous on a couple of occasions, in the first half with Blackett and in the second with Jones, he was reluctant to want the ball passed back to him.

Space in front to attack not taken advantage of – the defence needs to be more positive and closer together. When they win the ball there appears to be a sense of what next? The only memorable technical moment came when Jones took the ball off Altidore.

The midfield battle was clearly won by Sunderland. The introduction of Januzaj appeared bold at first but observations of Belgium’s games shows this wasn’t as new a move as it seemed but it shows van Gaal’s flexibility (or forced flexibility). An alternative solution at the time of the substitution could have been dropping to a back four with Valencia at right back, the defence shuffling left and single midfielder in front. A 4-1-4-1 with Rooney deeper and Welbeck up front, Januzaj left and Young right. The game was not wide enough in United’s favour and needed addressing.

Overall shape - Note the space between Smalling and Blackett. We saw Blackett dragged out of position versus Swansea

Overall shape – Note the space between Smalling and Blackett. We saw Blackett dragged out of position versus Swansea

Whatever shape United opted for it is creativity and drive they are missing, whatever words you choose to use United looked limp. A start would be for the midfield to push on an extra 10 yards and to bring the defence with them.

Up top the strikers need to be asking more questions of the opposition. It was far too easy for them as they dropped off to try and get the ball. These strikers are not the running at defenders type.

There were some positives from the game. De Gea rarely looked troubled and the changes made by van Gaal were bold. But we’re scraping the barrel.

Never thought we’d say this but the trip to Milton Keynes can’t come quick enough!