Man Utd 3 Sunderland 0: As a proven winner of league championships across Europe, Louis van Gaal knows what it takes to stay the course and finish on top.
He also knows his current Manchester United side is not the finished article so his muted enthusiasm at going to the head of the Premier League by beating struggling Sunderland at Old Trafford was both natural and understandable.
“I have let 20 or 25 players go. So it’s a new team,” stated Van Gaal. That said, the Dutchman also knows his new team is better and seemingly more focused than the one he tried to hastily re-build last season from the squad he inherited from David Moyes.
He added: “The manager has influence but the players much more. They have to build up a structure in the dressing room and that’s really important. They have to accept that structure.
“We have a good team but we can win and lose. You need luck but the balance of the team is better than last season. Because of that we need to win our games.
“We shall improve every week. I don’t see it every week but see that we are better as a team and a selection. I rotate more now because I can. Last year in my opinion I didn’t have the balance.”
The luck Van Gaal also acknowledged as an ingredient for attaining success came, he believed, at the end of the first half against a Sunderland side without a win all season.
United were allowed a full four minutes of injury-time to try and break the deadlock and used up virtually all of them before Juan Mata met Daley Blind’s floated pass with a square ball for Memphis Depay to convert from inside the six-yard box for his first Premier League goal.
“Goals are so important,” said Van Gaal. “We scored in the last minute of the half so my approach at half-time was therefore much different. It changes everything. I talk in another way.
“How we go back on the field it’s so important. Look at Swansea. We dominated for 90 minutes but had five minutes when we didn’t and we lost.”
That defeat in Wales remains the only time United have lost in the Premier League this season, a run which allowed them to go above Manchester City to the top of the table for the first time under Van Gaal.
City’s lunchtime defeat at Tottenham had paved the way for United to leapfrog their neighbours and, as it turned out, extend their advantage over slow-starting Chelsea following their dropping of further points at Newcastle later in the day.
Complacency or over-anxiety were likely to be United’s biggest opponents against a Sunderland team looking as though they are destined for another long struggle against the drop.
Whether they can repeat the great escape they pulled off in 2014 when a first win at Old Trafford since 1968 propelled them to safety already looks doubtful.
In fairness, the Black Cats were not the soft touch they might have been as manager Dick Advocaat tried to further enhance his impressive managerial record against his fellow Dutchman.
The return of John O’Shea as captain helped stiffen the worst defence in the league, while Lee Cattermole’s comeback in midfield also added an extra layer of protection.
United, still with two holding midfield players in Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin, looked laboured early on as they struggled to find a way through Sunderland’s deep-lying line of green shirts.
But once Depay had found a way through the outcome looked inevitable.
It was then a question of whether Wayne Rooney could end his 11-match Premier League goal drought, which he did less than a minute into the second half when bundling home his 171st league goal to move level with the mark of Denis Law. Mata, who also contributed to that goal, then got the one his performance merited when firing home in the last minute.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1):
De Gea 8; Valencia 6, Smalling 7, Blind 7 (Jones 73), Darmian 6; Carrick 7 (Schweinsteiger 68, 7) Schneiderlin 7; Mata 8, Rooney 7, Depay 6 (Young 77); Martial 7.
Subs not used:
Romero, Herrera, Fellaini, Pereira.
Pantilimon 7; Jones 6, O’Shea 6, Kaboul 6, Van Aanholt 5; Cattermole 7; Johnson 5 (Fletcher HT, 6), M’Vila 6, Toivonen 6 (Larsson 70, 6), Lens 6; Borini 5.
Subs not used:
Gomez, Defoe, Yedlin, Coates, Mannone.
Michael Jones 8
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