MANCHESTER, England — Three points on Manchester United’s 3-1 win vs. Sunderland in the Premier League.
1. January addition could propel United into top four
The Jose Mourinho revolution is beginning to gather pace at Manchester United, but there is one piece of the jigsaw still missing as the January transfer window approaches.
United are beginning to defend with organisation and belief, Paul Pogba is showing why he cost a world record £89 million, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is closing in on 20 goals in his first season at the club.
Meanwhile, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose stunning goal capped United’s 3-1 win against Sunderland before Fabio Borini’s equally impressive consolation goal for the visitors, is also making his early weeks of struggle appear a distant memory.
But although United ran out as convincing winners against David Moyes’ strugglers, they missed enough chances early on to give Sunderland a lifeline.
Already this season, Stoke, Burnley, Arsenal and West Ham have sneaked away from Old Trafford with draws after having been outplayed by United, and Sunderland, on another day, could have done the same. The danger for United is that unless they can find a way to kill teams off earlier, they will fall off the pace in the race for a top-four finish.
With January looming, however, the opportunity is there for Mourinho to throw down the gauntlet by adding a proven goal scorer to his squad.
Having scored 17 goals in all competitions already this season, Ibrahimovic has matched the tally of last season’s top scorer Anthony Martial. But the 35-year-old Swede cannot be expected to maintain his current streak of 11 goals in 10 games, so he needs better support.
Wayne Rooney, who missed Monday’s game through injury, is no longer the attacking option of old, so United must go for broke by signing a new striker next month.
It could be the difference between qualifying for the Champions League or missing out again.
2. Despite victory, United still lack variety and pace
While the hosts dominated, their attacking play was predictable at times until the second-half introduction of the fit-again Mkhitaryan.
The majority of the home team’s forays forward were routed through Antonio Valencia down the right, with the full-back then being expected to cross the ball for the forwards. But, just like the majority of his teammates, the Ecuadorean lacks pace and variety when going forward.
If he cannot go past his man — more often than not, he checks back without even trying to do that — Valencia pulls the ball back to Pogba or Ander Herrera, who then attempt to find a way through a congested defence.
By contrast, on one of the rare occasions that United went down the left against Sunderland, they opened the scoring just before half-time when Ibrahimovic teed up Daley Blind, who burst forward from his position at left-back to score his first goal since January.
But without obvious pace in the starting lineup and with their game-plan pretty obvious, United struggled to break down their opponents until the visitors tired in the second half.
The lack of pace or variety also proves a problem when attempting to feed Ibrahimovic. He generally plays with his back to goal, so the absence of pacy forward runners enables the opposition to smother and force him to play the ball backwards.
If Mourinho can find a way to get Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial back in form, the problem could be solved.
3. Sunderland cannot afford to lose Defoe
Jermain Defoe may not have added to his eight goals this season, but even as Sunderland slumped to defeat, the 34-year-old showcased exactly why he is so crucial to his team’s survival hopes.
West Ham and Crystal Palace are both keen to sign the former England striker when the transfer window opens next month and Sunderland could quite easily name their price for their leading scorer.
Indeed, Defoe could arguably set his sights much higher than those suitors if he chose to move away from the Stadium of Light because his performance against United’s improving back four was one of a player 10 years younger.
He displayed pace, awareness and a deft touch in and around the box, working markers Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo constantly and providing a threat whenever the ball was near the United goal. Sunderland’s problem, however, is relying too much on the much-travelled striker.
London clubs will always have a chance of luring Defoe back to the capital, but even if Sunderland hold firm and keep him in January, they must also find a way to beat teams without him.
Can a centre-forward with so many miles on the clock be relied upon to carry his team all the way through to May without being injured or suffering a loss of form? The odds are on Defoe remaining at Sunderland next month, but he showed once again at United that his class remains, despite his age.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_