United might have expected to return to league action looking to consolidate their hold on second position, but after the earlier result at White Hart Lane by kick-off time this game presented an opportunity to go top of the league. Van Gaal made five changes from his mid-week League Cup selection, but there was actually only one change from the last league game with the injured Rojo being replaced by Valencia.


In: Darmian, Carrick, Schneiderlin, Memphis and Martial.
Out: Young, Herrera, Schweinsteiger, Pereira and Fellaini.


  • As with the mid-week League Cup game this was a comfortable victory with United winning without seeming to break sweat.
  • Solid at the back and comfortable in possession; but United spent long periods of this game not stretching a poor Sunderland side. The end justifies the means with a second successive 3-0 win, but one feels that if United took a few more risks and were more positive in their attacking a team like Sunderland would crack earlier.
  • Mata had an excellent game here. In the first half both wide players, Memphis and Mata started from very wide positions. Mata constantly ran inside and producing inventive runs and incisive passes.
  • Valencia ran outside Mata into the space vacated by the Spaniard. He threatened Sunderland all afternoon but his delivery was poor.
  • In the final third United aren’t quite clicking at the moment. In the second half Sunderland appeared shattered and there for the taking. Perhaps United should have cut loose and scored a hat full, but they didn’t, and although they scored a late goal they often took the wrong option.


United set up with a 4-2-3-1team shape but with Darmian switching to the left full back position. Valencia featured as the right full back. Sunderland were set up as a 4-1-4-1.

1st half a  darmian

United first half shape and Damian switching sides right to left full back

From the outset the game had much the same pattern as the League Cup game played earlier in the week. United dominated the play against seemingly toothless opponents. They dominated possession. The most noticeable feature of the early play was that United were maintaining good width to their play. Memphis and Mata started in very wide positions and whilst Mata tended to pass inside in the opening stages he tended to maintain his wide position. Perhaps attempting to use this Carrick and Schneiderlin then produced a number of straight balls down the middle of the pitch towards Rooney and Martial. Was this an attempt to push at the middle of a defensive line having used width the stretch that defence across the full width of the pitch. Unfortunately most of these straight passes were intercepted.

These passes were the exception rather than the rule however as United concentrated their efforts on maintaining possession. United are now adept at this, continually recycling the ball around the pitch from side to side and from back to front, but as Sunderland manager Dick Advocaat pointed out after the game United did not create many chances. There are two obvious reasons for this. Firstly the tempo of United’s passing is often too slow. This allows opponents to maintain their defensive shape more easily. The second reason is that not enough of United’s play asks questions of the opposition. This approach is “playing the long game”, United dominate possession and so control the game but early in that game whilst the opponent is fresh United’s play has little impact. Later in the game as teams tire gaps may appear as players become physically tired, don’t cover and close space as assiduously or become mentally tired and lose concentration.

Mata action areas and overall contribution; man of the match?

Mata action areas and overall contribution; man of the match?

The only other notable features of the first half were the performances of Mata, Valencia and Martial. As the half wore on Mata started to come inside from the right. As he did so Valencia ran outside on the overlap. Mata’s lateral movement cause Sunderland real problems and a good proportion of United’s better moments came from Mata’s positive play as he ran inside looking to pick passes. Valencia’s forward runs also cause Sunderland problems and he frequently found himself one on one with an opponent who he frequently beat. The problem for United was that his delivery was poor; he frequently miss-hit crosses or simply failed to pick out a United player.

Martial lead the line with great strength

Martial lead the line with great strength

The final notable feature of the first half was the strength of Martial. On several occasions the ball played up did reach him. With his back to goal and with a defender to his back he demonstrated an ability to hold the ball up and hold off the often over-physical challenge of the defender. Martial is a strong player who can play with his back to goal as well as being a quick player who can run in behind.

Then on the stroke of halftime United scored. This goal came from one of very few pieces of genuine quality play. Martial on the right fed the ball back to Carrick, he passes to Blind advancing from United’s defensive line on the left and he chipped a superb diagonal pass to Mata running behind the Sunderland defence . Mata cushioned a square pass, first time back across goal and Memphis forced the ball home on the stroke of half-time. Boom! 1-0. Blind’s pass made the goal.


In a game like this taking the lead changes the game because when a team who has come to defend, “park the bus” has conceded they have to change their approach and at some point thereafter be more adventurous. If they do not concede they grow in confidence and resolution. United then might have expected Sunderland to adopt a different approach in the second half, but before any change became apparent United scored again.

Rooney opens his account for the season

Rooney opens his account for the season

This goal came from Mata cutting inside from the right but then playing a reverse pass to Martial on the narrow right. He outmuscled a first defender before crossing before a second defender could reach him. Rooney prodded home from close range. Boom!

After this goal one might have expected Sunderland to become more positive in their play. They didn’t though but United did now find it easier to make chances. Perhaps this was because with a two goal cushion they were now prepared to be less cautious, more adventurous in their approach. Memphis and Mata both had good chances to increase United’s lead.

On 67 minutes Van Gaal replaced Carrick with Schweinsteiger. By this point Sunderland looked shattered and if United had been more determined to do so they could have scored several more. The problem was that United still seemed overcautious in their approach and did not take the game by the scruff of the neck. When they did threaten the Sunderland box they usually chose the wrong option.

2nd half first subs a            late

Late substitutions change personnel but not shape

On 73 minutes Jones replaced Blind. Jones positioned himself on the right with Smalling switching across to the left. Then on 76 minutes Young replaced Memphis. Young was more direct than Memphis and seemed more prepared to deliver a cross than Memphis who had often tended to recycle the play via his midfield colleague. This paid off for United in injury time when Young beat his man on the left and picked out Mata on the far right hand side of the goal. Boom! Unmarked Mata calmly shot home to make the score 3-0 in the last minute.

Mata - cool finish

Mata – cool finish


United go top and that is always a good thing. This was another unspectacular win though with United controlling the game and tiring Sunderland out. Having taken a two goal league by the 46th minute however one would have liked United to be a little more positive in their play.


Mata, Rooney and Valencia all played well. Darmian, playing on the left rather than the right held his own, although the Sunderland offered minimal threat. Continuing to play with two pivots getting the balance right in that area of the pitch is critical in games when the opposition sits back. When Carrick and Schneiderlin play together there is something missing. Both players concentrate on keeping the team shape and usually take the easy passing option. Schweinsteiger brings something extra. His passing and movement if far more inventive and adventurous; he is far more likely to press forward and so force the opposition to commit players disturbing their defensive shape.

But top is top.