Manchester United slump to another defeat as Sunderland are given hope
SUNDERLAND, England -- Three points from Sunderland's late 2-1 win over Manchester United in the Premier League at the Stadium of Light.
1. Sunderland end home hoodoo
Sunderland had never beaten Manchester United in the league at the Stadium of Light. You have to go back to 1997 when they beat Sir Alex Ferguson's men 2-1 at the old Roker Park for the last home win.
They could not have picked a better time to break their duck.
Lamine Kone's powerful header ricocheted home off David De Gea in the 82nd minute and secured three crucial and completely deserved points against a lethargic and shapeless United side. Beleaguered manager Louis van Gaal has hit out at the English press for their criticism of his team, but when they play like this and lose like this, it's hardly surprising.
United should have known that they were in for a battle. Sunderland had looked better of late, putting in an excellent performance against Manchester City, but losing. Fighting back to snatch a draw at Anfield. Sam Allardyce had brought in reinforcements in the transfer window and the nascent signs of improvements had been evident. On a bitterly cold day in the north east, they were up for the fight from the first minute. The same could not be said for their opponents.
Sunderland scored early. When Patrick van Aanholt ran at Matteo Darmian, the Italian's countermeasures were too rough for referee Andre Marriner. New signing Wahbi Khazri stepped up to take the free kick, whipping the ball into the box and he wheeled around in joy as it somehow slipped through a crowd and into the net.
United tried to respond, but were altogether too ponderous to make any inroads into Sunderland's defence. Every time they lost possession, Allardyce's team were quick to break and his new signings were making their presence known. Khazri was a potent threat on the left. Dame N'Doye relished running at Cameron Borthwick-Jackson on the right. Some promising distribution from Jan Kirchhoff was truncated by his injury and it must be said that Sunderland looked poorer with the sluggish, sad-looking Jack Rodwell on in his place.
Sunderland made strong appeals for a penalty when Khazri's powerful shot crashed into the arms of Morgan Schneiderlin, but the French midfielder was turning away with his arms and it was hard to make the case that contact was deliberate. Not that Allardyce's side needed any help in creating chances. They had much the better of the first 20 minutes.
It took United 33 minutes to put their first shot on target, a strong effort from Juan Mata straight into the arms of Vito Mannone, and they lost yet another player to injury when Darmian was withdrawn with a shoulder injury.
But they still drew level before the break. Anthony Martial, one of the few United players with a bit of oomph about him, zipped into the box and pulled the ball back for Mata, whose shot was parried superbly by Mannone. But Martial hadn't stopped moving, he'd followed up the shot as it left Mata's foot and he was rewarded for his diligence. It still needed a good finish from a tight angle, but Martial seems to have no problem in that department.
The second half brought more possession for United, but more chances for Sunderland, and another penalty appeal. Wayne Rooney, booked minutes earlier for a cynical clip on Lee Cattermole, deflected a Sunderland corner behind with his hand. As with Darmian, he wouldn't have known much about it, but the question must be asked; why were his arms so high in the first place?
United were fortunate not to fall behind again before they did in the 82nd minute. First Defoe's close-range finish was deflected wide by Daley Blind, then N'Doye broke down the right only to see De Gea stretch out a foot to block his low drive. When United substitute Donald Love brought down Khazri outside the box, there was another chance for the Tunisian set-piece specialist to score, but De Gea was in the right place to claim his shot.
But there was nothing that could be done about Kone's late header. Allardyce gave the squad he inherited a fair chance, but they were found wanting. He assessed, he analysed, he took action. With three new signings on the pitch, a fourth injured early on, Sunderland have secured a result that might just turn their season around.
2. Khazri offers new dimension
Sunderland's record in the transfer market has been poor in recent years, but they look to have signed a real gem in Wahbi Khazri. The 24-year-old was snapped up for around £9 million in January and has wasted little time in settling into this Sunderland side. Like Duncan Watmore, facing a lengthy layoff with ankle ligament damage, Khazri appears to believe that every minute of the game is the last minute of the game, and gallops up and down the pitch accordingly.
Khazri was Bordeaux's top goal scorer this season, but he won't have scored many stranger than the opener. His second-minute free kick looked like a dud, too low and slow to cause the Manchester United defence any problems, but it evaded everyone and slipped into the net. On the bench Allardyce shrugged and smiled. Earlier this week he'd bemoaned his team's failure to convert their dominance into a goal against Manchester City. At this stage of the season, still deep in the mire, he'll take any sort of goal.
But Khazri offers more than just a deceptive set piece. He harries opposition players when they're in possession. He chases them across the pitch, even when they've left what you'd think is his area of responsibility. And when the ball is won back, he's on the move again, pushing up to support Jermain Defoe. They've seen a lot of big-name failures at the Stadium of Light, men who earn big, but contribute little. If Khazri continues to put this level of effort in, they will love him here.
3. United ever-more reliant on youth
No, the results aren't good enough and the performances are consistently disappointing, but at least Van Gaal is staying true to one of Manchester United's central tenets.
Academy graduate Jesse Lingard started ahead of £25m man Memphis Depay. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson has been trusted to shore up the injury-ravaged left flank, where other managers might have spent in the transfer window. Donald Love made his first-team debut when Matteo Darmian was withdrawn with a shoulder injury.
Few managers of elite clubs would be so generous with game time for young players. If you believe the rumour mill, and results like this certainly vindicate it, United are edging closer to Jose Mourinho. The ultra-pragmatic Portuguese is not known for his dedication to youth ...
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.