Subpar United flail at Sunderland
Gaps, gaps and more gaps. Manchester United's 1-1 draw against Sunderland illustrated perfectly the scale of reconstruction that this squad needs.
In the absence of Ander Herrera, missing through injury, the team operated at a lacklustre pace, rarely pressing the ball in central midfield or playing it sharply into the feet of Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie in attack.
Perhaps understandably, Darren Fletcher's return to fitness has not been accompanied by the poise that he showed in his prime. Meanwhile, alongside him, Tom Cleverley toiled as if suffering through a hellacious game of piggy-in-the-middle. Sunderland's midfield three of Lee Cattermole, Sebastian Larsson and Jack Rodwell outmanned and outmatched Fletcher and Cleverley as they found themselves marooned far from Juan Mata, who was having trouble creating anything in the final third.
Ahead of Mata, Rooney and Van Persie failed to combine with any sort of urgency or dynamism, and the first half served best of all as a reminder why Angel Di Maria is so sorely needed. The Argentina playmaker, on this showing, cannot arrive soon enough. He may have a price tag that some deem excessive, but he is worth 60 million pounds to a team in this state of disrepair.
Most alarming about the team's play was the lack of intensity. There was perhaps a hope that, despite their travails at Old Trafford, Manchester United would play with greater freedom on the road, but that was not to be the case. Though they took the lead after 17 minutes, Antonio Valencia finding an unaccountably unmarked Mata at the far post for a tap-in, they did so against the run of play.
Following their taking of the lead, Manchester United never truly managed to establish control of the game, and the moments leading up to Sunderland's equaliser were a microcosm of the match. Cleverley found himself outfoxed in the team's left back position, where he and Ashley Young failed to stop the advance of Sunderland's forwards, and the ensuing corner was headed firmly home by Rodwell as Valencia looked on.
It might seem harsh to criticise Valencia so sharply, but his predictability in wide areas was again exposed, his marker too often shaping his body in correct anticipation of Valencia's inevitable drop of the shoulder and surge to the right.
After the equaliser, the game reverted to its familiar pattern, with Sunderland superior in possession but lacking the quality to impose themselves more ruthlessly upon Manchester United. The visitors should beware, since other teams -- such as Chelsea -- will be even less respectful and far less lenient. Connor Wickham could have scored on two occasions, once early in the first half and once in the second, and one winces to think what Diego Costa could do when presented with such opportunities.
Manchester United's back line was again a source of concern. The players seemed uncomfortable at times with their positioning, perhaps still adjusting to the back three formation, and too often long passes went astray -- a strong argument for the acquisition of Daley Blind from Ajax. Wickham was a continual menace, his size, speed and strength making Tyler Blackett anxious. Then there was the injury to Chris Smalling, who was withdrawn after his hamstring gave him trouble. Michael Keane came on for his Premier League debut, though this happy moment seemed less of a celebration of youth than a recognition of the stretched nature of the squad.
In the second half, Louis van Gaal would introduce Danny Welbeck in attack (for Van Persie) and, remarkably, Adnan Januzaj in midfield (for Darren Fletcher) and the team immediately showed more pace and purpose. Despite these changes, Manchester United never looked truly close to claiming victory, with Sunderland ending as the team most aggrieved not to have won.
Meanwhile, in the midst of all this, Young tried to win a penalty with the aid of a dive, to the derision of both his supporters and those of Sunderland. His last two performances are serving as some sort of metaphor for the illusion of preseason brilliance.
It is too early for Van Gaal's work at Manchester United to be questioned, but some will soon start to question the soporific nature of his team's play and how much of that is directly attributable to him. What is clear is that the squad is "broken," as he recently put it, and may need more rebuilding than anticipated. All in all, the atmosphere at the training ground on Monday looks set to be a sobering one.
Musa Okwonga is a football author, poet, musician, broadcaster and social commentator. He is on Twitter @Okwonga.