Three Points: Sunderland vs. Man Utd
SUNDERLAND, England -- Three quick thoughts from Sunderland's 1-1 draw with Man United at the Stadium of Light.
1. Di Maria won't fix this mess
One point from two supposedly "easy" games and the problems at Manchester United are now obvious to everyone. We can all be sure about one thing: It's going to take more than Angel di Maria to fix it. Riddled with injuries and reduced to one fit senior centre-back, United need to spend big. This is a harsh lesson in reality for any fan who felt that this season couldn't be any worse than last season. It can always be worse. It is worse.
It is remarkable that United have allowed themselves to approach September in such a vulnerable position. After the shambles of last summer's transfer window, lessons should have been learned. The transfer window is beginning to close, and the selling clubs are upping their prices, monetising desperation. Chelsea and Manchester City completed their business with time to spare. United are still scrambling around looking for players like a useless husband in a gas station on Christmas Eve, wondering if his wife would be pleased to find a set of new wiper blades in her stocking.
It has been obvious for some time that United need a new centre-back and another midfielder before anything else. With Di Maria's price tag apparently set at an eye-watering 63.9 million pounds, United must be ready to either revert to the 4-4-2 or invent a new formation that uses two or even three "No. 10s."
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Facing a Sunderland side that just scrambled clear of relegation last season, United started badly and deteriorated from there. Within the first four minutes, three United players had made horrible individual errors, all of which went unpunished. The central defenders -- Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Tyler Blackett -- look uncertain and are befuddled by even the simplest attacking moves. The wing-backs, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, provide useful width going forward but can't summon the wherewithal to provide any protection at the back. In midfield, neither Tom Cleverley nor Darren Fletcher could control the game, which left Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie isolated and starved of service.
On the plus side, David de Gea performed adequately.
Astonishingly, it was still United that opened the scoring after 17 minutes with their first serious attack of the afternoon. Antonio Valencia zipped past Patrick van Aanholt far too easily on the right flank, and Mata engaged his cloaking device, slipping beyond Seb Larsson and touching the ball home from close range. But that was the sum total of their efforts in the first half, and they didn't do much better in the second.
When Sunderland equalised on the half hour, it was nothing less than they deserved. United had given away a series of corners and free-kicks out wide as they scrambled after their tormentors, exposed by their inability to work within this new system. Finally, one of those set pieces paid off. Larsson lofted in the corner, and Jack Rodwell rose to crash it home. Resistance was futile.
It could have been even worse after the break when Michael Keane, on for the injured Smalling, failed to deal with a routine ball and Connor Wickham nearly struck from close range. At the other end, United's best chance of winning came from a rare moment of panic in the Sunderland box close to the end, an opportunity that, of course, they failed to take.
Reinforcements are urgently required. But spending heavily on yet another talented attacking midfielder is like buying your 3-year-old daughter a sports car. It's generous, but it's not really what she needs right now.
2. Rodwell finds his feet
Once upon a time, people thought Jack Rodwell was so talented that England could build a team around him that would last for 10 years or more. When he left Manchester City this summer, few people could remember the last time he completed 90 minutes.
There were signs at the Stadium of Light, however, that he might be slowly finding some form.
His goal helps, especially when it's a cathartic, towering header in front of his new supporters, but it was his all-around performance that really impressed. Composed and controlled, he looked to be enjoying himself against the frail presence of Cleverley and Fletcher, besting them in all conceivable criteria. If he can keep fit and keep playing, he could prove to be an excellent signing.
After Sunderland's 5-1 defeat at White Hart Lane in April, manager Gus Poyet announced that his team needed a miracle. Fortunately, someone up there must be a Mackem. The Black Cats escaped the drop, took ownership of their gift horse and quickly cantered on without even a cursory check of its teeth. The decisive acquisition of Rodwell is evidence enough of that.
At the highest levels of the club, they know how badly they messed up last summer. But with sensible signings like Rodwell and the effervescent Will Buckley, they should avoid a similar fright this season. And who knows; perhaps one day they will all be able to laugh about what happened in 2013.
3. Young still diving
You would think that a man with a reputation like Ashley Young would think twice before flopping so outrageously, but alas, no. Like a Victorian street urchin hurling himself against the side of a carriage and then begging for compensation, Young saw Wes Brown approaching and took off, soaring through the air and crumpling in a heap on the floor. Referee Martin Atkinson had no hesitation reaching for the card, booking Young and winning the admiration of neutrals everywhere.
The worst detail? Young's efforts at deception obscured the fact that an earlier challenge on Robin van Persie probably was a penalty. No wonder that seagull did in Ashley's mouth what it did last week.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.