Manchester United are currently in a strange position. They have gone 20 games unbeaten in the Premier League, but there seems to be a curious lack of enthusiasm for this feat. Perhaps this is because, for much of the past few months, they appear to have been stuck firmly in third gear. Their defensive record is the third best in the league and their away form is impressive, but they make very hard work of their wins, rarely overwhelming teams with far inferior resources.
If there is a persistent criticism that can be levelled at Jose Mourinho, it is that he is good at getting the very best from his more limited players, but not so good at getting it from his most gifted ones. In recent matches, we have generally seen strong performances from Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo, while those tasked with bringing flair to United’s play have conspicuously struggled. Marcus Rashford is thrilling with the ball at his feet, but has of late not offered the penetration that is promised by his boundless talent.
Mourinho was even moved, following the 1-1 home draw with Everton, to voice a rare public criticism of five Manchester United players, including Paul Pogba, lamenting the fact that they had not scored enough goals this season. In Pogba’s defence, the woodwork has not been his best friend, having denied him on six occasions in the Premier League. Nonetheless, the France international is not exactly shot-shy, and so it is also fair to say that he should be converting more of his efforts.
In this context, Sunderland look like the ideal opposition. They have lost five of their past six in the league, the only bright spot in that period being a goalless draw with Burnley, and have failed to find the net in that time. They have recently conceded heavily to Southampton and their defence is currently as porous as they come. And yet there is still the fear that United will make heavy weather of this assignment.
The problem that Mourinho’s men have had, at home in particular, is that the tempo of their passing has at times been too slow and their movement too static to break down more resolute defences. Some might also point out that the upcoming fixture is the type that best suits David Moyes and his Sunderland side — one where the home team are cast as the plucky underdogs, having to carve out a result against the odds.
Moyes may be encouraged by the fact that a resurgent Leicester struggled to break them down in their last match, only managing to score two goals late on to claim victory. He will expect United to dominate possession when they meet, but can call upon Lee Cattermole after his return from a hip injury. The centre of midfield, then, is likely to be a highly combative place, given that Ander Herrera is back in the side after suspension and looking just as dynamic as he was before his ban.
Sunderland’s main threat — on too many occasions this season, their sole threat — will be Jermain Defoe, a forward whose finishing process would have been of great value at United in recent years. Defoe is likely to be starved of chances, but is well placed to punish the lapses that Mourinho’s defence has seen in the past couple of games.
One danger for United, in fact, is complacency. The past two home matches have seen them almost concede a late winner — against West Bromwich Albion, when David De Gea palmed a shot against the crossbar — and let in a simple set piece, when the back four and De Gea were caught ball-watching at an Everton corner and allowed Phil Jagielka to pounce. The problem here has been a lack of concentration more than anything else, based on the fact that most teams coming to Old Trafford are generally happy to leave with a draw and do not put much effort into attacking. It is a highly effective strategy and one that must give Mourinho some cause for concern.
It was interesting this week, then, to see Pep Guardiola remark that Manchester City, unlike many other Premier League sides, had at least not gone to Stamford Bridge and played six men in defence. Mourinho has precisely the opposite problem to Guardiola — he has fixed his team’s defence and is now struggling to find cohesion in attack. His problem, though, is that it may be somewhat harder to fix, at least in the short term. The return of Pogba from injury has not come a moment too soon, with United visibly better once his creativity was added after half-time against Everton, and it will be largely thanks to him that United should prevail against Sunderland by a one- or two-goal margin. However, given the sheer weight of fixtures ahead for Mourinho’s men in April, it is unlikely that we will see them shift out of third gear.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.