Manchester United started in their usual 4-4-2 formation. Carrick and Cleverley played in midfield, Nani and Januzaj on the wings and Rooney and Van Persie up front. Sunderland played a 4-3-3 system, headed by Jozy Altidore who was supported by Giaccherini and Johnson in the wide areas. Gardner and Ki were the two highest midfielders, with Cattermole as the single pivot behind them.
Sunderland’s game plan disrupts United’s in the first half
Sunderland’s plan was clear right from the start. Kevin Ball wanted his team to play at a high tempo and intensity early on in order to catch Manchester United out. In the opening minute and sixteen seconds, David Moyes’ side had been forced to hit the ball long three times due to the high pressure on the ball from Sunderland.
The instructions for the home team were for Ki and Gardner to pressure Carrick and Cleverley in midfield, giving them little time to exert control on the game and to break up Manchester United’s play by forcing them to play out through the centre backs, who were given far more time on the ball. This idea made it very difficult for United to slow down the tempo early on and build their way into the game. Not only that but Sunderland in general were quicker to the second balls and working at a higher intensity, while the champions were making very basic mistakes.
Here is another example of the pressure on Cleverley and Carrick:
What Sunderland were gambling on was to create pressure early on and get a goal before Manchester United were able to gain control of the game. And this was what happened with United making extremely poor defensive mistakes at the back and failing to clear, allowing Gardner to score.
Sunderland for their attacking part were mainly looking to win the ball in midfield and counter quickly, often through Altidore in the channels, or play it long to Altidore on the first ball and play off him. United were completely lacking composure at the back and could have been 2-0 down within eight minutes but Gardner failed to either commit to taking his chance on or passing it to one of his teammates in the box.
It was no surprise considering this pressure that Manchester United’s threats were coming from the wide areas. They often looked to switch the ball long to Nani to get him 1v1 with the full back and on the other side, Januzaj’s movement inside from the left untracked by the right back was causing Sunderland problems between the lines. Both had shots on goal in the first half and their dribbling was unbalancing the home side
The other side of it was Manchester United on a few occasions had a lot of space to make crosses from the wide areas. Sunderland seemed happy to allow them to do this but it was still a threat for United and Nani had a clear opportunity to equalise which he didn’t take advantage of after a cross by Evra who had yards of space.
The second half comeback from United wasn’t really a story of tactical changes. It was more a result of added intensity on United’s part and tiring on Sunderland’s part. Clearly the home side were not going to be able to sustain their intensity or pressure for the full ninety minutes and even in the first half had dropped deep into their area as United tried to find a way through.
Cleverley appeared to play higher up for Manchester United but really their second half dominance came through mistakes from Sunderland. The first goal came as space developed out wide for Evra, as Sunderland prioritised blocking United out through the middle. Januzaj’s run into the box went completely untracked by Ki, a sure sign of tiredness and complacency setting in, and he had the space to shoot in front of Sunderland’s backline. The second again came from a cross from out wide, a poor clearance from O’Shea and a spectacular finish from Januzaj.
Sunderland played well in the first half – they forced Manchester United to build through the centre backs by putting intense pressure on United’s midfield and playing at a good tempo to catch United out. If they had taken their chances, they could well have been 3-0 up by half time which would have made it extremely difficult for United to come back. Ultimately United took control of the second half and looked much more fluid than they had in the first. There are still worries for Moyes’ side, not least the errors that are being made in defence and the lack of intensity throughout the whole team. There’s no doubt though, after the past week, the win was more important for them here than the performance.