This weekend marked the 25th anniversary of Sir Alex Ferguson's marriage to the managerial post at Old Trafford. Sunderland were the side entrusted with the unenviable task of raining of the legendary Scot's parade, with Steve Bruce's men hoping for their first victory over Manchester United in many a year.
As it was, they were unable to do so, but the game itself very much failed to live up to the occasion. Wes Brown's unfortunate own goal on the stroke of half-time was the only thing that separated the two sides in a poor game, and Sunderland headed into the upcoming international break still boasting only two wins thus far this season.
Often derided as overly cautious, particularly against so-called 'big' teams, Steve Bruce courageously opted to stick with his recent 4-4-2 formation on Saturday, and in doing so ignored the no doubt large temptation to pack the midfield and look to stifle last year's Premier League champions.
However, his plans were thrown into chaos within the first couple of minutes. The recently promising Connor Wickham took a tumble on the halfway line and was promptly stretchered off, with Ji Dong-Won forced to replace him.
Perhaps surprised by their visitors' courageous formation, or maybe still shellshocked from their thrashing at the hands of Manchester City two weeks ago, United took a while to get into the game. Indeed, it was Sunderland who forced the play in the opening stages, though they never really looked like creating a great opening. In the first twenty-five minutes, the Black Cats forced seven interceptions of United play, with these more often than not coming high in the Sunderland half – a fact that shows, even without filling the midfield, the Wearsiders were able to keep their hosts fairly quiet and away from Keiren Westwood's goal.
Of course, class tells over time, and United soon came to impose themselves more and more. However, the hosts still managed only two efforts on goal before the forty-third minute, as Steve Bruce's men broke up play fairly effectively. By the end of the first half, Lee Cattermole and Jack Colback misplaced just five passes between them, with the former successful in 75% of his tackles too.
To concede right on half-time was extremely disappointing for Sunderland, especially as the goal came (yet again) from a poorly defended set-piece. As a result, the game opened up much more in the second half, with the visitors now looking to reduce the deficit. Naturally, this led to more openings for the home side, most notably when Westwood was called upon to perform a quite brilliant double save from Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra.
In this rather drab affair, it was always unlikely that Sunderland would manage to claw back a point, but that is not to say they were entirely without hope. The introduction of David Meyler and Ahmed Elmohamady seemed to inject life into the visitors, and they enjoyed a decent period of pressure towards the game's later stages.
The Curious Case of Stephane Sessegnon
Bruce once again opted for Stephane Sessegnon on the left of a midfield four, but, as alluded to by Michael Graham in our post-match report on Saturday evening, this game once again threw up the worry about where the man from Benin fits into a 4-4-2 formation.
On Saturday, his presence as an attacking outlet was severely limited, and he found himself taken off on 75 minutes. An analysis of some of the passing graphs thrown up by the game (which we, unfortunately, can't bring to you this week) shows a distinct lack of activity by the Manchester United's right-back, Phil Jones, in deep areas. Jones played excellently and, through his uncompromising nature when without the ball and his willingness to attack with it, he pretty much took Sessegnon out of the game completely.
Seeking to combat this, in the second half Bruce opted to move Ji to the left and slot Sessegnon in behind Nicklas Bendtner. The latter has been tried frequently this season already, and has rarely yielded success. Sessegnon did find himself more involved once in this position, but he was unable to work any substantial openings and, as stated, found himself substituted before the end.
Much like last week's draw with Aston Villa, this was a fairly poor game of football. Both sides lacked any real spark or moments of individual brilliance (Westwood's double save apart), and the game was hardly one to write home about.
Despite the defeat, Wickham's injury and the question of what to do with Stephane Sessegnon, it was not all doom and gloom for the Black Cats. First, Keiren Westwood looked very promising, and could be key in shoring up a leaky back line. In addition, Ji Dong-Won, one rushed shot apart, appeared calm and composed throughout, even when shifted out to the left-wing. Lee Cattermole, too, much criticised, had a decent game.
An international break arrives now and, in spite of this loss, one could argue it hasn't come at a great time for Sunderland. There have been promising signs in recent weeks and, it must be remembered, this is a side that has yet to lose a game by more than a one goal deficit. With such small margins in evidence, it may only need a small tweak for those defeats to be turned into victories.