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Sunderland 1 Man Utd 2 - tactical analysis

Alex Dunn takes an in-depth tactical look at Manchester United's 2-1 win over Sunderland and thinks a star is born in Adnan Januzaj.

Last Updated: 06/10/13 at 11:39 Post Comment

Adnan Januzaj marks his full Premier League debut with a match-winning performan

Adnan Januzaj marks his full Premier League debut with a match-winning performan

On a day when a third successive league defeat for the first time since 2001 looked a real possibility for Manchester United, a star was born as Januzaj marked his full Premier League debut with a stunning brace to deflate a battling Sunderland 2-1 at the Stadium of Light.

For 45 minutes bottom of the table Sunderland were more than a match for the champions and deservedly went into the half-time break leading courtesy of Craig Gardner's fourth-minute opener. Were it not for a David De Gea wonder save it would have been even worse for United.

Post-match David Moyes said he thought his side were excellent throughout but the Scot is wily enough to accept off camera that only a markedly improved display after the interval saved United's league campaign drifting to 'crisis' point just seven games in. That he will raise a glass to Januzaj this evening is in little doubt.


Having been accused of being more conservative than Mary Whitehouse in his team selections thus far as United boss, Moyes sprung a surprise in handing a full Premier League debut to 18-year-old Januzaj. The Scot said pre-match: "We're giving young Adnan his debut. He deserves it, he's been terrific. We've tried to keep a bit of continuity and stability from the last game as well."

The winger's selection won the approval of Jamie Redknapp in the Saturday Night Football studio: "Every now and again a player comes along who's that little bit special, has that little bit of stardust. Great left foot, a dribbler, every time he gets the ball he looks to make something happen. He has a baby face but he's ready. It's a good move by David Moyes. United need a spark." Prophetic words indeed.

Luis Nani also earned a recall on the right to make just his fifth Premier League start in almost a year, as Antonio Valencia dropped out. A wrist injury prohibited Marouane Fellaini's involvement as Tom Cleverley partnered Michael Carrick in a midfield four that allowed fit-again Wayne Rooney to partner Robin van Persie up front.

For Sunderland caretaker boss Kevin Ball made just two changes from the side that lost 3-1 to Liverpool in his first game last week. Ondrej Celustka and Valentin Roberge replaced Carlos Cuellar and Sebastian Larsson respectively.

Celustka's presence at right-back saw Gardner pushed higher up the field to bolster Sunderland's midfield in a three alongside Lee Cattermole and Ki Sung-Yueng.

Story of the game

As far as job interviews go Sunderland's first half performance in front of Ellis Short could not have gone any better for Ball. If the sign of strong management is moulding a side in your own image, then the Black Cats' favourite son may just turn out to be the man to drag Sunderland from the foot of the table.

From the off Sunderland pressed high up the pitch and their opening goal in the fourth minute epitomised everything that was good about their performance and, at times, wretched about United's in the first half. From Nemanja Vidic's headed clearance from a Kieren Westwood punt up field it was Celustka who won the second ball in front of Januzaj. Next it was the pugnacious Gardner who wanted it more than Cleverley as he snapped into the challenge to poke the ball to Emanuele Giaccherini. An insipid challenge from Patrice Evra was easily bypassed by the diminutive winger as his low cross was half cleared by Phil Jones into the path of Vidic, who just as he did on Wednesday in Donetsk, failed to adjust his feet accordingly as the ball ricocheted to Gardner. His finish from eight yards was emphatic.

Redknapp said at half-time: "The first half was typified by Gardner closing down every second ball. He wants it more than Cleverley. The tackle by Evra is appalling. Vidic has been all over the place."

United were rocked and as the home crowd implored their players into each and every tackle, it looked set to be a long afternoon for the away side. A lack of cohesion in a back four that has lacked any regularity all season resurfaced time and time again. The sight of Vidic and latest centre-half partner Jones getting in each other's way when competing for the same ball on eight minutes was symptomatic of a lack of unity. Gardner was guilty of dreadful indecision when he was caught on the ball by Jones when through on goal, while at the other end Sunderland restricted United to shots from range as neither Rooney nor Van Persie came to the fore.

It wasn't exactly a replica of Manchester City versus Bayern in midweek but there were similarities in that United were overrun by Sunderland's extra man in midfield. "Cattermole has been a midfield sweeper in picking up the second ball," said Gary Neville on co-commentary duty and it's a pertinent point. The graphic below shows how Cattermole (no.33) sat in front of his back four and did a fine job in keeping an in-form Rooney quiet. In the first period he made more interceptions than any other player on the field and along with Gardner, his pressing high up the field kept United on the back foot as they failed to find any rhythm to their play.

Ki was less noticeable but his 100 per pass accuracy complemented his team-mates' industry. As an indicator of Sunderland's adventure it's interesting to note how full-back Celustka (12) played further up the pitch than winger Giaccherini (23). The pair showed a promising understanding throughout and in doubling up down the right gave Evra a tough 90 minutes, as Januzaj on occasion showed he's still a little green defensively.

Whilst Sunderland's midfield had a nice interchangeable fluidity, Carrick and Cleverley (16 & 23) occupied practically an identical space; aware that to move out of the middle would leave their side even further exposed.

The only real plus-point for United was the languid dribbling of Januzaj. A lovely turn and flashing drive from the edge of the area had Westwood scampering across his goal, while Nani volleyed wide from Evra's raking cross from left to right.

It was Sunderland though who were creating the more clear cut chances and the game's key incident, an incident that potentially could have huge repercussions for both managers, arrived in the 33rd minute. When Adam Johnson's right wing delivery was met with what looked to be a perfectly placed header from Giaccherini, all bets were off on anything other than a goal. De Gea strained every sinew to get a solid right glove on the ball and miraculously pushed it wide of his goal for a corner.

Peter Schmeichel was unstinting in his praise: "I said it could be significant at half-time and it proved to be so. If United had gone 2-0 down here it's a completely different game. De Gea had to look at the ball, readjust and come back. This is one of the best saves I've ever seen in the Premier League and it could be the kick-start for United."

Giaccherini could barely believe it and looked to still be working out what had happened moments later when Johnson presented him with an even better chance just before half-time, only for the Italian to blaze wildly over when free on the penalty spot.

After the break it was an entirely different game. A combination of the home side having ran themselves out, Carrick's sublime game management and, of course, Januzaj's headline stealing act saw United grind out a deserved three points. There was nothing eye-catching about Carrick taking greater control but the stats don't lie on this occasion. After the match he insisted his team-mates were never panicked and it showed in his game particularly. With a pass accuracy of 88 per cent he made 116 passes. To put into context United's next most productive passer was Cleverley on 65. Jack Colback topped the list for Sunderland with just 37 passes.

If Carrick was the polished class act, Januzaj was the new kid on the block with a glint in his eye and scant regard for the brevity of the situation. Think Paul Newman and Tom Cruise in The Colour of Money.

His first goal was all of his own design. Cattermole did a decent enough job in tracking Januzaj back to the edge of Sunderland's box but when he made a yard to clip it out to Evra, the home side's skipper was guilty of being drawn to the ball. Had Ki shown a better appreciation of the situation he could tracked Januzaj's run. Instead he allowed the Belgian to glide into the pocket of space vacated by Cattermole to meet Evra's return ball with a precision, eye of the needle finish with his 'weaker' right foot from 15 yards.

Neville was purring in the commentary box: "He has the arrogance you need to be a top player."

With a first thought of getting a shot off, Januzaj made just one cross all evening. While Van Persie and Rooney may have something to say about that statistic, Moyes will care not one iota after his stunning second.

Nani's clipped cross just past the hour mark was met with a headed clearance from John O'Shea that fell on the volley to the now brimming with confidence starlet. Demonstrating a technique that belied his tender years, Januzaj cut across the ball to hit a wonderfully crisp and controlled angled effort with his left foot past Westwood. "We are watching something special here. This is absolutely world class," said Neville.

It's a little too early to say just how good the 18-year-old really is, but a later assertion that he's grabbed United's left wing spot for the foreseeable future seems a fair one. It's a measure of his swagger that he completed more successful dribbles (five), had more shots (six) and drew more fouls (three) than any of his team-mates in his 77 minute bow. He was so good, we'll even let him off his uncanny impersonation of a rested team-mate that earned him a caution. Prior to Januzaj's brace, of the 16 goals United have scored so this season just one had come from a defender or midfielder.

Ball's response to falling behind was to switch to a 4-4-2 by introducing Connor Wickham for Ki but save for some exceptional positional play by Vidic to clear a dangerous Larsson cross on 82 minutes and De Gea's somewhat kamikaze clearance with his feet in injury time that caused momentary panic, Sunderland struggled to create anything of real note.

It was hardly a win-win situation on full-time but the desire Ball's team has shown in two defeats has given his chairman plenty to ponder, while for Moyes the emergence of Januzaj as a player of irrefutable promise can only help quell the criticism that his sides are functional, perfunctory and lack any of the boldness and glamour that characterised those of his predecessor.

It's a start at least.

Ball's view

"Having done so well in the first half, scored a goal and created a couple of chances, coming in at half-time we knew the second half was going to be difficult and we'd have to dig deep. But we're very disappointed with the two goals we've conceded, which could have been avoided with a bit of communication."

Moyes' view

"I remember giving Wayne his debut, and Ross Barkley, and Adnan is certainly that quality. He is a top, top player. He is going to be a special talent. He has got goals, he has got ability on the ball, but we will keep his feet on the ground here. My plan was to play him three or four weeks ago but I never quite got the opportunity and for different reasons I didn't pick him, and I thought today was the right time. He has been so good, it was hard to stop him."

Redknapp's view

"It doesn't happen very often but every now and then young players come along who make everybody else on the pitch - top players - look average. And that's what Januzaj did today. It was a special performance from an 18-year-old. It was a pleasure to watch."

Player ratings

"He turned this match in the second half. He was brilliant today, even in the first half; he was a shining light in what was a poor first-half performance for United," said Gary Neville of Januzaj and his comments are reflected in our match ratings, as he scooped the Man of the Match award with an unbeaten score of eight.

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