SO many things contribute to winning, losing or drawing a Premier League football game and, despite the best efforts of coaches, there are occasions when simple dumb luck – good or bad – can prove decisive.
But there is that cliche about making your own luck and, on Saturday at Old Trafford, Sunderland certainly did that, thanks to a shrewd tactical plan, excellently executed.
Gus Poyet’s 4-1-4-1 formation was perfectly suited to frustrate United’s 4-2-3-1 system if the Wearsiders did their jobs right.
Ryan Giggs had chief creative force Juan Mata playing in the middle of the advanced three, just behind Hernandez and that was meat and drink for Lee Cattermole.
Every time the Spaniard received the ball, Cattermole seemed to be on his case and, when he wasn’t, Jack Colback and Seb Larsson were snapping at the United’s man’s heels.
Once again, the sheer industry of that trio helped nullify the home team’s attacking threat.
Sunderland’s players covered more ground than United’s (115km compared to 107), made more sprints (334 v 326) and sprinted for longer.
United won the stat for time spent standing in the game and also (perhaps confusingly) completely dominated possession – with 63 per cent.
But those apparently contradictory stats unite to tell the whole story.
United had an awful lot of possession but just could not do much with it.
With Mata marked out of the game, it was left to deep-lying midfielders Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher to be their side’s top passers in the game – and most of their passes went sideways.
United’s best hope lay in their pace on the flanks. but the speedy Marcos Alonso just about kept up with Ashley Young and Santiago Vergini proved himself no slouch looking after Nani.
When United did have joy with crosses, they never got enough men in the box and it was difficult for Javier Hernandez to prosper from balls lofted into the box, with Wes Brown and John O’Shea towering over him and continually heading clear.
Usually, in games like this, United have a world-class player to break the deadlock, but Wayne Rooney was injured and, when Giggs brought on three attacking subs in the second half, Sunderland, thanks to Seb Larsson’s 30th minute goal had their tails up and refused to be bossed.
Poyet’s subs were crucial, with both Jozy Altidore and Emanuele Giaccherini proving to be just the willing workers and outlet further up the field that Sunderland’s terriers needed.
In the end, Sunderland’s game-plan had worked: be defensively strong, accept you’re going to be under pressure, but support each other and look to be positive and take responsibility going forward.
There was always the prospect – there always is with United – that they might have plucked a wonder-goal out of the ether, but every Sunderland player did their duty and made it hellishly difficult for the Red Devils.
One disgruntled United fan phoned a radio talk-in show after the game and mentioned Sunderland had “parked the bus”.
The show’s host, who had watched the game, was quite right to disagree and point out that while Sunderland had understandably been defensively minded away from home against one of the biggest names in football, they had also looked to attack whenever they had possession and, as well as scoring the only goal, Sunderland had hit the woodwork twice.
The first time was through Giaccherini, whose first-time strike from fellow sub Altidore’s right-wing cross would have been a near replica of Larsson’s skilfully executed finish.
The second came from the boot of Fabio Borini with just five minutes remaining.
It was a wonderfully instinctive left-foot shot from the Italian which deserved more than to curl and crash into the crossbar and it came at the end of a long string of Sunderland passes, all over the pitch, which had the away fans cheering.
It was just like watching Man United.