Forget about the league table. Forget about the fact that both Manchester City and Liverpool won their fixtures earlier in the day. This was a win David Moyes needed to afford him some breathing space from a certain section of Manchester United fans as well as an increasingly frenzied media. With an international break looming, another poor result would have seen the pressure intensify even further on the former Everton manager.
Moyes has done plenty wrong in terms of team selection so far this season (the early persistence with Ashley Young, an overreliance on the aging Vidic-Ferdinand axis, a lack of game time granted to Kagawa, etc.) but here, in a game he had to win against opposition that have had a woeful start to the campaign, he was brave. He played a kid in Adnan Januzaj, as well as Nani, van Persie and Rooney. In the centre of the park were Carrick and Cleverley. It was Moyes’ most attacking team thus far, ignoring the more industrious and defensively astute Valencia and Welbeck for wide berths.
The first half was poor, and but for the brilliance of David de Gea in goal, United may well have went into the break more than a solitary goal behind. Whatever Moyes said at half time had the requisite effect.
Carrick and Cleverley upped the intensity in midfield. Carrick in particular looked back to something approaching his best form following a slow start to the season, while Cleverley (the player with whom Carrick appears to dovetail best) played with the industry of a man aware that his long term place in the team is far from guaranteed.
Ultimately though, it was the 18 year old Belgian that took the plaudits. Januzaj scored both goals to garnish an encouraging performance in what was his first Premier League start. Positioned nominally on the left wing, he drifted infield as often as he was to be found getting chalk on his boots. His was a performance that belied his years; tricky, two footed, deft of touch, constantly seeking possession, displaying the courage needed to take players on. His second goal bore all the hallmarks of a potentially great player – the technique was world class in its execution. After an encouraging pre season with the full team squad, many fans wondered if Januzaj would be given a chance when it mattered, and it’s to Moyes credit that he has had the faith to integrate him so quickly.
While the manager will be grateful for the performance of Januzaj, the problems that have blighted this season cannot be masked by a victory against the team currently rooted to the foot of the table.
Defensively United were again suspect. The poor performances of Ferdinand, following a stellar campaign last year, are threatening to be repeated by Vidic. He was poor in midweek, and was culpable for the goal that United conceded here (though his defensive partner Phil Jones has to take his share of the blame too). Altidore proved a threat every time he ran at Vidic, and while pace has always been the Achilles heel of the United captain, it seemed more pronounced against Sunderland (possibly magnified given it was hardly a player of world class repute he was up against).
Up front, van Persie continues to underperform. He missed a chance late on that last season he would have tucked away comfortably. Alongside him, it was Rooney’s poorest performance this season in terms of impact, ball retention and creativity.
Then there is the question of the lone summer signing. It’s strange to consider that United paid £27 million for a player that in all likelihood would not have improved the team that was selected to start the match. His assimilation continues to be a puzzle that is as of yet unsolved, but it is one Moyes needs to get to grips with.
So, the international break arrives with United having picked up a much needed three points. Still off the pace and with much work to do for Moyes, the result at least stems the panic and cries of crisis that had grown louder. For now.