Louis van Gaal isn’t an idiot. Even when he proclaimed that he had been turned into the ‘devil’ of Manchester after last weekend’s opening day defeat to Swansea City, it successfully removed some of the heat from a team that, whilst limited, under-performed at Old Trafford. This afternoon, the Dutchman made a point of name-checking one Arturo Vidal, a name that has refused to go away this summer, as a player he’s keen on in his post-match debrief. On the basis of another stuttering performance at the Stadium of Light devoid of any sizzle or intensity, he offered another pointed message to his paymasters that reinforcements are needed if they are serious about their desire for an immediate return to the Premier League’s summit. At present, his current charges aren’t capable of it.
On the basis of today, and the oft-mentioned initial difficulty that Van Gaal’s teams tend to experience in taking to his methods, United’s issues are a legion of broken records; the visitors enjoyed plenty of possession, especially in a second half they ran, but failed to create much that troubled their opponents. Chris Smalling’s second half injury only strengthened the notion that he, Phil Jones and currently-sidelined Jonny Evans cannot be relied upon to remain fit this term, and the less said about central midfield, the better.
For their part, Sunderland might well regret not making more out of another out-of-sorts United performance. They looked more likely to open the scoring, at least, Ashley Young gifting possession and a break on goal within the first minute and Connor Wickham firing at David de Gea moments before Juan Mata broke the deadlock on 17 minutes. Antonio Valencia’s useful low cross took a crucial deflection that made the Spaniard’s tap-in even simpler, but Gus Poyet’s team were good value for their equaliser on the half-hour mark, Jack Rodwell easily escaping Robin van Persie’s attentions to head home Seb Larsson’s corner.
The game was defined by what United were lacking; Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley’s afternoons were characterised by unsuccessful probing and some exceptionally slack passing, yet things were hardly much better up front, where Mata, Wayne Rooney and Van Persie struggled to link up, let alone create. The latter frequently had to drop deeper in order to allow others to join in the attack, but even when United fashioned a rare break, they were so cautious and slow, seemingly refusing to distribute the ball quicker and allowing Sunderland to settle again with ease.
Admittedly, the reshuffled defence of Michael Keane, Jones and Tyler Blackett coped well after the break, with opportunities mostly scarce for the home side but the situation was hardly more incendiary at the other end. The introduction of the supposedly want-away Danny Welbeck certainly made for a more mobile attack, but it didn’t inspire an increase in intensity. A draw did little to raise the spirits but, in light of injuries and the obvious deficiencies on show, offering vitriol in response seemed a little pointless.
It bears repeating; Van Gaal is not an idiot. He has by now surely surmised that today’s midfield partnership are on a hiding to nothing, that more pace and directness is essential and his current plan to incorporate Rooney, Van Persie and Mata into the same side is, at present, not working. At least one of those issues should be resolved with the reportedly imminent signing of Angel Di Maria, but this cannot have made for particularly impressive viewing for any prospective new arrivals or the club’s new manager. In that sense, its just as well that this is early days.