Having won three consecutive League games United now had two home games over the holiday period each against teams that with all due respect they should beat with anything like a decent performance. The first was against struggling Sunderland.


In: Blind and Mata.
Out: Darmian and Rooney.


  • United’s first half display was a little disappointing. They were in control and had a few half chances but before the goal it lacked intensity and focus. Sunderland looked comfortable in their defensive shape; they also looked confident in possession when they had the ball taking the sting out of the game. United’s press didn’t work.
  • This changed after half time with United passing the ball forward earlier and with greater attacking width.
  • Pogba had another excellent game. He was the focus of much of United’s attacking play and the instigator of many of the forward thrusts from the centre of the pitch. Carrick does this from the deep, but it is another dimension when Pogba does this too from higher up the pitch.
  • As the game became more stretched in the second half with Sunderland chasing the game Jose Mourinho showed his excellence by introducing increased pace in the attack via Mkhitaryan and Martial. Fresh legs to catch Sunderland with pace.
  • Ibrahimovic is on fire. His movement is excellent and his developing understanding with Pogba is a delight. He is also the sought of physical presence United have lacked as the focus of their attack for several years; ensuring that the opponents centre backs can never feel comfortable.


Jose Mourinho made only two personnel changes from the side that won at West Brom. The team shape remained the same as the now de-facto 4-3-3 with Carrick as the screening midfield player and Herrera and Pogba ahead. Sunderland adopted a 4-3-2-1 shape with Amichebe as the lone forward and Defoe and Van Aanholt behind. This allowed their shape to morph into a 4-5-1 in the defensive phase.

1st-half  Manchester United v Sunderland - Premier League

United’s first half shape and Lingard who struggled to make the same impression on the game he made at West Brom

United started brightly pressing Sunderland to try to win the ball in high positions and this created a couple of early half chances although nothing too clear cut. Paul Pogba was prominent in most of this and he seems now to be becoming the focus of much of United’s attacking thrust. He often dropped deep to pick the ball up and then drove forward; he is growing in confidence in respect of his role in this side and his relationship with Ibrahimovic is developing well.

After the initial period the game settle down into a pattern where United were generally on top but not dominating. This was the case because Sunderland kept the ball well when they won it and the effectiveness of United’s press dropped off. Sunderland often beat the press and this allowed them to break with pace. Amichebe provided the power and pace as the focus with Defoe and at times Aanholt the pace from behind to support. Sunderland themselves had a couple of half chances and whilst United were marginally on top the game was for periods quite open and too end to end for United’s liking.

In attack it was most noticeable that Mata, notionally the right sided attacking player works right across the attacking line. This left space on the right which was often filled by Herrera moving outside on the right or by Valencia moving forward; when Valencia moved forward Herrera dropped into the fullback area as cover. This worked okay going forward but meant that Herrera was not as successful as he usually is as one of United’s better pressers of the ball. Pogba is naturally a more attack minded player and not a natural presser of the ball on the left and Blind’s lack of pace means that he has a natural tendency to drop deeper at fullback rather than press. This left Lingard to press on that side and whilst his movement is often excellent in possession it is not always to the same standard out of possession. This meant that United weren’t as effective at winning the ball back early as they have been in recent games.

This usually allowed Sunderland enough time to drop back into their defensive shape and meant that United’s attacking play was generally in front of Sunderland. Lingard was far less effective in making runs to stretch Sunderland than he had been in the game at West Brom. Sunderland’s defensive line tended to stay deeper and surrender ground leaving less space behind them. Like Mata Lingard tended to come inside making United’s front three quite narrow, this made it easier for Sunderland who could concentrate on defending a narrow front.

Mata and Lingard action areas in the first half. They were often too narrow

Mata and Lingard action areas in the first half. They were often too narrow

The contrast between United and Sunderland’s attacking endeavours was significant. Sunderland were far less likely to commit numbers forward, their attacking forays being quicker and more direct (although they did work the ball well; it wasn’t long ball hit and hope), United’s play was more methodical and as a consequence when they attacked the play became compressed with Sunderland dropping deep in numbers. United still created chances but this has been United’s area of weakness for several years now; breaking down opponents when they are set in their defensive shape.

Fortunately in the 38th minutes United demonstrated to themselves how to do this. Immediately prior to this breakthrough United had enjoyed a couple of chances. Sunderland cleared the last of these to a throw-in on United’s right. Having taken this United circulated the ball at pace on the right, back and forward, inside then outside each pass probing before switching the play to the left. The ball was channelled across to Rojo making a timely run from the deep and he played a pass into the outside right channel to Ibrahimovic who was stretching the Sunderland defence wide. He turned back and threaded a pass into the feet of Blind making a late diagonal run into the box. One touch, shot, goal. Boom! 1-0.

Blind - Boom!

Blind – Boom!

This was an excellent goal, probe on the right, quick switch to the left and early thrust. Sunderland had been dragged to their left before being hit on their right. The key was switching the ball quickly and then overloading as a consequence of defensive players stepping up at the key moment (Rojo and Blind) to overwhelm the opposition. United using the full width of the pitch was also a key factor.

The goal didn’t instantly change the pattern of the game so the score remained 1-0 at half time.


Neither side made a half time change in personnel but United corrected a couple of key faults in their first half play after the break. Firstly Mata and Lingard tended to stay wider longer. They still occasionally came inside but not as often. The second adjustment was that United now moved the ball forward quicker via direct vertical passes into feet or beyond the defensive line. United passed at a goof tempo throughout the game and as in other recent games players look increasingly confident in doing this but now United looked to pass into the Sunderland defensive third at the earliest opportunity. All this created a number of early chances in the second half. Unfortunately the final ball in and around the box wasn’t quite right or the shot was inaccurate. Pressure mounted however as Sunderland struggled to retain possession now, United now had a better shape and so were better able to press.

United shots - 25 attempts on goal, but only 9 on target

United shots – 25 attempts on goal, but only 9 on target

In respect of the good early passing this is an interesting feature of United’s play at the moment. United were very capable of retaining the ball of course last year and by the end of Van Gaal’s reign as manager this had become almost second nature. Under Van Gaal however much of the passing was cautious side to side and in the classic possession based U-shape. The difference is that United are now more adventurous in their passing and pass at a better pace. They rarely hesitate, instead moving the ball on after one or two touches to a player who then does the same. They then retain the ball via circulation rather than caution and in so doing put pressure on the opposition. Van Gaal’s United retained possession but didn’t always ask questions of the opponent with that possession. The difference between the first half and second half here was that in the second United’s early passing ask questions whereas in the first half their more deliberate passing, (more Van Gaal like at times), did not always do so.

2nd-half-1      mkh-2

United’s shape after the introduction of Mkhitaryan

Despite this United needed a second goal and Sunderland continued to look dangerous when they were able to mount a successful break out. Perhaps as a consequence Mourinho made his first change in the 61st minute removing Lingard and introducing Mkhitaryan. This was a like-for-like swap in a positional sense with Mkhitaryan slotting in on the left. He immediately made an impact with a direct run and shot from distance which fizzed past the post. In the 64th minute United should perhaps have had a penalty when on the second phase of an attack Ibrahimovic was hacked down by a wild kick by Koné, for some reason the referee did not give the award.

Mkhitaryan did tend to stay wider longer than Lingard and he used his pace more effectively by being more direct than Lingard had been. Pressure continued to build on Sunderland for the next few minutes but then around the 70th minute mark the visitors began to commit more men forward and generally began to play a higher line. In response Jose Mourinho made his second change removing Mata and introducing Martial. This necessitated a positional adjustment with Mkhitaryan switching across to the right and Martial positioning himself on the left. United now had pace and width on both flanks either side of Ibrahimovic and were perfectly set up to catch Sunderland if they over committed.

2nd-half-2           martial

United’s shape after the introduction of Martial

They did tend towards being more adventurous now and the game became stretched. There was of course a danger in this but Mourinho was effectively backing his defence to stand firm whilst ensuring there was a greater threat on the break so that the initiative was not completely surrendered to the visitors.

Fortunately this worked and United scored a second goal in the 81st minute. This was a transition goal with Pogba intercepting a loose pass on the half way line to United’s left. He ran right to left diagonally towards the Sunderland goal dragging Sunderland players to the right as Ibrahimovic ran to diagonally from right to left. Pogba’s pass to Ibrahimovic was perfectly timed and left Zlatan on-on-one with Pickford in the Sunderland goal. Boom! 2-0.

Zlatan - Boom!

Zlatan – Boom!

After this goal Mourinho removed Pogba for Fellaini’s fresh legs. United also had several good chances to score again.

2nd-half-3          fellaini

United’s shape late in the game with the introduction of Fellaini

They then did score again in the 84th minute. Again the game was stretched and after a United move had broken down Valencia picked up a loose pass on the United right. He feed the ball out wide to Ibrahimovic who hit a low cross into the centre. This dropped behind Mkhitaryan who executed a sublime volleyed scorpion kick into the goal. He was offside but this was an astonishing piece of skill. Boom! 3-0.

Mkhitaryan - Boom!

Mkhitaryan – Boom!

This was game over of course but United continued to have chances and it was not inconceivable that they would score again. It was Sunderland who score next however with Borini hitting an excellent dipping shot from outside the box in the 90th minute. This meant that the final score was 3-1.


Another good win. United eventually made the breakthrough and then having taken the upper hand managed the match situation until they were able to catch Sunderland as the game became stretched. Having taken the lead they never really looked back.

Match statistics

Match statistics

Ibrahimovic and Pogba were excellent in attack, but United lacked attacking width in the first half. There is a balance to be achieved between good movement and retaining a good attacking shape which ensures that the opponent is stretched. United didn’t get this right in the first half but improved after the break.