You don’t have to search for long to find damning indictments of David Moyes’ tenure as Sunderland manager, but Sunday brought another superb example to add to the collection. Moyes’ team found themselves a goal and a man down at half-time, and thus required a stirring team talk from their manager. By the time the second half was 45 seconds old, Manchester United had doubled their lead. Sunderland had not even touched the ball.
Jose Mourinho has hinted that he will prioritise the Europa League over a potentially draining and futile attempt to pip two of Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool to a place in the top four, and Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Daley Blind and Michael Carrick dropped to the bench. There was even a league start for Luke Shaw, his first in the league for a month and second since October 29. The left-back was showing no signs of his recent brain transplant; he is now controlled entirely by Mourinho.
Mourinho could not have wished for a more malleable opponent nor more gentle early afternoon stroll. There is no opponent quite like Sunderland for rolling out the welcome mat, supplying the alcohol and food and hosting the party. Moyes has won four home games in all competitions this season, against Leicester City, Hull City, Watford and Shrewsbury Town. There was never any danger of four becoming five. Sunderland have not even scored since February 4.
If allowing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to turn and shoot on the edge of the penalty area made Sunderland’s defeat likely, Seb Larsson’s challenge on Ander Herrera deemed it a certainty. The Swede went to great lengths to claim innocence and may consider himself unfortunate, but diving into any challenge in such a manner equates to negligence.
There is little to learn of your own strength from winning a fight against a critically wounded animal, and even the most optimistic of Manchester United supporters would not use this as evidence for any significant progression. After a Saturday on which four of the five sides above them won and one is yet to play, United merely achieved the necessary.
Yet there were individual victories. Injury to David de Gea allowed Sergio Romero to start his first Premier League game since August 2015, and the Argentinean reminded supporters of his excellence with a fine save from Victor Anichebe and some wonderful long-range passing. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Rashford responded to Mourinho’s suggestion that they haven’t scored enough goals with their fourth strikes in the league this season, while Marouane Fellaini captained the side. Sometimes you don’t need a punchline.
Yet it was Shaw who benefited most, despite his withdrawal as Mourinho’s first substitution after an hour. With all eyes on his display, Shaw was United’s best player in the first half, creating a chance for Fellaini with his pace and anticipation when the ball looked dead. During that first 45 minutes, 38.7% of United’s play came down the left flank compared with only 23.4% on the right.
Shaw’s 58 touches of the ball on the left was bettered by only 14 for Matteo Darmian on the right, but the Italian had an 30 extra minutes. No player on the pitch created more chances than Shaw, and none played more crosses into the box that found their target. He even registered his first league assist since August 2015.
Knowing Mourinho as we do, it would be no surprise to see Shaw left out of the match-day squad against Anderlecht on Thursday. Shaw has almost as long road to recovery ahead of him as he did last season after serious injury, but, finally, was trusted by his staunchest critic.
Even if this does begin a period of renaissance, I would be more mindful to give Shaw praise than his manager. Whatever the young defender’s flaws, the public displays of disaffection are ungainly. Most Manchester United supporters will be hopeful that this can be a turning point rather than another fleeting false dawn, because there’s a £30m full-back in there. Let’s hope it fights hard enough to come out.