David Moyes was the dominant subject in the build up to Manchester United’s Boxing Day fixture. It was the first time that the Scot, chosen by Sir Alex Ferguson to be his successor, had returned to Old Trafford since his sacking two and a half years ago. Despite still believing that he should have been given more time, Moyes was not, and so sat in the opposition dugout as his growing Sunderland side took on United during their most impressive streak of the season so far.Photo: WikimediaCommons
The solid centre back partnership of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo kept the fit again Chris Smalling out of the side while Daley Blind was preferred at left back to Matteo Darmian. The midfield triumvirate of Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba and Michael Carrick dictated the tempo of the game while Zlatan Ibrahimović, slightly surprisingly, was flanked by Juan Mata and Jessie Lingard. Marcus Rashford, Antony Martial and Henrik Mkhitaryan took seats on the bench.
Sunderland’s game plan was as many would expect; sit deep, absorb United’s attacks and try and spring Jermain Defoe on the counter attack. Moyes got it spot in the first half with the Black Cats troubling David De Gea a few too many times. Nonetheless, It was United who took the lead just before half time when Zlatan teed up the onrushing Blind to arrow a shot past Jordan Pickford.
The second half was a far more frantic affair. United carved open a number of opportunities while Sunderland attempted to get themselves back into the game. Having dropped too many points from winning positions already this season, United, like against West Bromwich Albion in the previous fixture, added a second through Ibrahimović to seal all three points. It was the final two goals of the game, however, which really caught the eye. Henrik Mkhitaryan, from an offside position, scored what can only be described as a scorpion kick, while Fabio Borini grabbed a consolation goal in the 91st by thundering a brilliant volley past the motionless De Gea.
With five wins in a row under their belt, José Mourinho’s side are now the most in-form team in the Premier League, besides leaders Chelsea. It has been three years since any United fan as felt anything related to confidence and conviction, but the Portuguese manager has instilled a toughness which has been missing from the Reds since Fergusson. A shaky Middlesbrough side are arriving at Old Trafford for the final fixture of the calendar year and Untied should pick up another three points to edge closer to the Champions League places.
GK: David De Gea: 7
Suffered a testing first half where the Spaniard was called into action more times than he may have expected. Made a good save from Patrick van Aanholt’s dipping free kick and did brilliantly to snuff out Victor Anichebe when the Nigerian striker was through on goal. Could do nothing about Fabio Borini’s wonder goal.
RB: Antonio Valencia: 7
Mr. Consistent was, well, consistent. Kept the potentially difficult Borini and van Aanholt quiet with his effective shadowing. Made three successful tackles, the joint most of any player on the pitch. Played a very good lofted through ball to Mata before his penalty appeal in the first half. Put in two good crosses into Ibrahimović’s path in the second half.
RCB: Phil Jones: 7
Another solid performance from Jones, who is rewarding José for the faith that he has put in the English defender. Dealt with Defoe comfortably and grew as the game went on. In a game where United was going to see a lot of the ball, Jones showed that he has added distribution to his locker with an impressive 98% pass accuracy.
LCB: Marcos Rojo: 7
Composed and assured, Rojo looks more confident than ever in a United shirt. Got involved in the Reds’ build up play twice in the first half; the first was a dribble and shot which flew over the bar while the second led directly to the opening goal. Rojo’s run towards goal dragged a defender out of the way of Blind, who, therefore, had time to pick his spot in the far corner of the net. Ushered the physical Anichebe well in the second half.
LB: Daley Blind: 8Photo: WikimediaCommons
An all-round performance from the Dutchman who has been often left on the sidelines while Matteo Darmian held down his position. His Scholes/Lampard-esque late arrival into the box led to the opening goal. Solid defensively too, most notably when he stopped a precarious Sunderland counter attack in the second half with a well-timed interception.
CDM: Michael Carrick: 7
Yet again proved that he is a vital cog in United’s midfield engine. Calm and smart when in possession while many players were trying to force the ball forward to no avail. Scuffed an edge-of-the-area volley in the first half but made an important tackle just outside of his own box when Sunderland were fighting back.
RCM: Ander Herrera: 7
The important runner between Carrick (defence) and Pogba (attack). Completed more passes than any other player on the pitch (92), however, a lot of them seemed to be sideways in the first half when United were failing to break down Sunderland’s numerous banks of defence. Became more penetrative in the second half, particularly when he teed up Pogba with a well-weighted cross.
LCM: Paul Pogba: 8
A commanding performance from the Frenchman. Completed more dribbles than any other United player (3) and his strength was important in his personal duels with Sebastian Larsson and Didier Ndong. Played some brilliant through balls to Valencia and Ibrahimović, the final of which earnt Pogba an assist. His shooting was more wayward than normal but other than that the Frenchman dominated proceedings.
RM: Juan Mata: 7
A much better display from the smiley Spaniard who was below-par against Crystal Palace. His direct run in the first half led to a free kick in a dangerous position, which he duly stepped up to take, forcing Pickford into a very good save. Played a well timed through ball to Zlatan in the first half and picked out Mkhitaryan at the far post for the Armenian’s curling effort.
LM: Jessie Lingard: 6
A more industrious display than Mata on the opposite flank, but less threatening going forward. Played most of his passes sideways or backwards and struggled to really penetrate Sunderland’s defence with his pace, especially in the first half. Substituted in the 61st minute for Mkhitaryan who instantly looked brighter.
ST: Zlatan Ibrahimović: 9Photo: WikimediaCommons
Another man-of-the-match performance from Zlatan, playing as a lone forward in the Premier League at the age of 35. If you stop and think about it, it really is a bit ridiculous. It was not a perfect performance, some poor touches and dilly-dallying on the ball led to the loss of possession, but the sheer presence of the Swedish icon is awe-inspiring. His goal was coolly taken when it looked like Pickford had smothered the danger. Earned two assists too; the first for setting up Blind and the second for crossing to Mkhitaryan.
Henrik Mkhitaryan: 8
Came on in the 61st minute for Lingard and completely changed the game. United were struggling to grab a second and Sunderland were growing in confidence with each minute. Bent a swirling effort just past the post with his first touch and played Ibrahimović through on goal with his second. His goal was exquisite, despite being offside, and montage worthy. You could imagine Ibrahimović or Pogba pulling off a scorpion kick, but the Armenian was the one who pulled that particular piece of skill out of the hat.
Antony Martial: 6
Replaced Mata in the 73rd minute but failed to have any real impact on United’s tempo. Seems to be struggling this season with less individual pressure on his shoulders.
Replaced Herrera for the final ten minutes and, like against Tottenham Hotspurs, received a mixed reaction from the Old Trafford crowd. While clearly not a popular player, the Belgian is still a Red Devil and must be backed by the fans, no matter the incompetence he is prone to display. If Mourinho trusts him, United fans should too.