With one eye on Monday’s FA Cup quarterfinal at Chelsea, Manchester United cruised at Sunderland on Saturday, putting in a typical Red Devils performance while taking a 1-0 victory out of the Stadium of Light. And by typical Manchester United, we mean there are two probably distinctly different ways to interpret their performance.
The first is the reflex reaction to any United performance that fails to awe as much as their 25-2-3 Premier League record. United didn’t generate a ton of chances, let a bland and boring Sunderland stay within striking distance, and never had to show their true selves to see off a perpetually disappointing Black Cats’ side. With their only score a first half own goal, the Red Devil win was another example of a decent but deep team dominating a down league despite obvious deficiencies.
It’s a tired story. Manchester United were knocked out of Champions League early, but in the process they showed they’d rebounded after a down season, resuming their place among Europe’s elite. While individual results can be picked apart, their body of work speaks to a quality that emerges when Manchester United plays the Real Madrids of the world.
Sunderland isn’t Real Madrid. They’re not Atletico Madrid. They’re not even Getafe or Rayo Vallecano, La Liga’s other Madrid-based sides. They’re so much worse. Martin O’Neill has made Sunderland into an impotent, inflexible side that’s intent on diving into a relegation battle. The team hasn’t won since visiting Wigan on Jan. 19, posting only six goals and three points during their eight-match winless run.
So Manchester United didn’t start Wayne Rooney. They didn’t start Patrice Evra or Rio Ferdinand. Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck also started the game on the bench. It’s only Sunderland. Why should they? If Manchester United didn’t look like world-beaters, it’s because they never tried to put their best foot forward.
A Tyson Bramble own goal mid-way through the first half was all United needed to claim full points, and as the second half played out predictably – Sunderland with a few half-chances, Manchester United showing frustrating restraint – the Red Devils never seemed interested in more. United did put eight shots on Simon Mignolet and held 61 percent of the ball, but there was never a feeling they needed a second goal.
If anything, the numbers testify to control, not intent. Sunderland has fallen so far that a half-speed United were able to hold them to one shot despite having one eye on Monday. For a team with Sunderland’s resources to have so little way of influencing matches speaks volumes about how much the squad has regressed.
Such is that state of the Black Cats, but such is also the comfortable ride United have created for themselves in this year’s Premier League.