1. United played some fantastic football at times on Saturday, displaying exquisite one touch passing and lightening fast attacks, in a game that deservedly saw us pick up all three points. Like so many games before though, we just didn’t kill it off, despite creating so many clear cut chances. It would be wrong to say we had a nerve-racking finish but it was nowhere near as comfortable as it should have been. Still, we’ve scored 10 goals more than any team in the league so it’s probably a tad spoilt to complain that we aren’t scoring more. When the chances go begging it can be frustrating but more often than not we are winning, 82% of the time this season actually (City – 59% and Chelsea – 50%), so I’ll happily take this weekend’s 3-1 win.
2. On a different day, we would have scored seven. Early on, the ball fell to an unmarked Evra in the box following a corner, but even with time to compose himself he smashed the ball over the bar. Ashley Young played in a perfect cross to Van Persie who headed down to Rooney, just a few yards out, but he swung at it and watched the ball sail past the post, much to the delight of the Sunderland fans. Antonio Valencia set up Rooney but his shot was deflected against the bar and when the ball rebounded to Young he missed the target, when really he should have buried it. Finally, Young should have had another assist to his name after playing through a great ball to Van Persie, who beat the offside trap and found himself with miles of room. Instead of hitting it low and hard he opted for the chip and couldn’t get it on target. You have to think that sooner or later a team is going to get an absolute battering off us.
3. Young, after being criticised by me every week on here this season, is going from strength to strength at the moment. As a candidate for our man of the match at the Etihad, Young proved to be even more effective against Sunderland, as you would hope. Despite having two men on him, and one of them even clipping his heel in the box, he managed to get a ball in, and after a John O’Shea cock up, Van Persie placed it in the roof of the net. It was too easy for someone of Van Persie’s quality. Van Persie nearly doubled our lead after forcing a great save from the keeper after heading a Phil Jones cross.
4. Rafael has been one of our best players this season and certainly deserves his place in the starting XI, but it was interesting to see Jones in this position again. His progress tailed off towards the end of last season but on Saturday he looked like the player we grew so fond of when he first signed. Jones loves bombing forward and the Sunderland defenders couldn’t contain him. He’s a better crosser of the ball than Rafael too, so is a great option to have. Chris Smalling also put in a competent display and after struggling to find four defenders to put in the starting line-up, we’re now inundated. Nemanja Vidic made his return, playing his first game since mid-September, with a beaming Rio Ferdinand making way for him. We’ve been without our captain for the best part of the year so let’s hope we can keep him fit until the end of the season now.
5. Jones and Smalling weren’t the only young players to impress, but Tom Cleverley too, who ran his socks off yet again and this time was rewarded with a goal. Since getting in to the first team his shooting has been wayward, at best, but his finish on Saturday was top drawer. A lovely one-two with Carrick before placing it just inside the post. It shows what he’s capable of, but minutes after the goal, he blasted an effort high and wide. There’s the Cleverley we know and love!
6. Lots of the pre-match talk revolved around Rooney, following his great display against City, but his frustration with Sunderland fans following their behaviour at the end of the last game of the season. Despite having just watched their own team lose, their fans started doing the poznan in celebration of City winning the league. Rooney scored our final goal of the day, thanks to lovely work from Van Persie as he skipped between two defenders, with Wazza getting a toe on the ball ahead of the two defenders. The strangest site of the day, aside from the two men dressed as Father Christmas giving Adam Johnson the wanker sign, was watching the Sunderland fans do the poznan in reaction to going 2-0 down. I thought Stoke fans were bad but this lot are by far the most small-time bunch we’ve had at Old Trafford for a while. I’m sure it was really encouraging for their players to see their fans celebrating the goals they conceded and singing about Aguero…
7. The biggest frustration of the game came when our players switched off, believing the ball was going out for a Sunderland corner, and then letting them get a cross in. Fraizer Campbell got up high at the back post and David de Gea had no chance. It was a shame for the Spaniard, who’d put in another good performance. He did well to stop a Gardner shot and then blocked Sessegnon from close range with the rebound. Another shot deflected off Paul Scholes but De Gea got there quickly to keep it out with his feet. We’ve had three clean sheets all season and Saturday should have been our fourth.
8. So, when did it start to go wrong? When did Sunderland start to see the ball and start attacking us? The difference between our first and second half performances was striking, with Michael Carrick making way for Paul Scholes at half-time. Scholes has been struggling for form this season but that’s not to say it’s all his fault. It’s just that Scholes doesn’t do what Carrick does. In 45 minutes, Carrick passed the ball 41/45. Over 90 minutes, the players with the best pass rate were Rooney, with 46/54, followed by Cleverley (subbed off after 73 minutes) with 46/51. So, despite playing 45 (or 28 minutes) more, our players could only manage five more passes than Carrick completed in the first half. Only three players completed more passes in the final third than Carrick (although none of them were as accurate). When Carrick was on the pitch we kept the ball and he was central to that, but when he was off the pitch, the first minute of Premier League football he’s missed all season, it was telling. As it stands, Carrick and Cleverley have to be our first choice midfield, although Ando might be able to give Tom a run for his money when he returns.
9. We’re two games away from being half-way through the season and we’re six points clear. We’ve already played Chelsea, City and Liverpool away, probably our toughest games of the season, and we’ve left with maximum points. Too early to start getting giddy but this is a brilliant position to be in.