Big match verdict – Mignolet let down by Sunderland defence at Man United
SUNDERLAND will resist any temptation to prise Simon Mignolet away from the Stadium of Light, particularly after entering contract talks with the Belgian.
But it is no surprise that Manchester United are keeping tabs on the 24-year-old, whose value has escalated significantly this season.
Mignolet’s consistency, shot-stopping and most importantly temperament, make him perfectly suited for the microscopic scrutiny that accompanies life at Old Trafford.
Certainly, it would be surprising if Mignolet and Keiren Westwood were both still on Wearside at the start of next season, with the latter’s international credentials hardly augmented by life on Sunderland’s bench.
Perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson may ultimately opt to keep faith in the improving David De Gea, who, like Mignolet, has age firmly on his side.
De Gea’s reflexes have never been a worry and the effortlessness with which he emphatically beat away efforts from James McClean and Connor Wickham banished any slim hopes of a comeback harboured by Sunderland on Saturday.
But the Spaniard is not a decisive figure from crosses, with several agonising balls dropping across the face of goal with neither the United keeper nor a Sunderland attacker getting a touch.
There remain question marks over United’s goalkeeping ranks, yet any potential for a “job audition” spin on Mignolet’s display, was ended by the performance of those in front of the stopper.
Mignolet did little wrong personally.
He flapped at a Robin van Persie corner five minutes before the interval, which Patrice Evra got to before the keeper’s attempted punch, only to send his looping header over the bar.
But other than that, Mignolet was resolute in dealing with crosses and produced a stunning tip around the post from his one meaningful save from van Persie’s header, in between United’s first two goals.
Confidence is not a problem for the former St Truiden man either after reproducing the Cruyff turn he first showcased at Stoke, to spin away from Ashley Young with 10 minutes to go.
Ultimately though, Mignolet still conceded three goals, even if he was faultless for each of them.
The decline of Sunderland’s defensive resolution and this tendency to gift opposition sides the softest of breakthroughs has become a worrying trend over recent weeks.
When Sunderland remained unbeaten over the opening five games, their success was built around the defence, who kept their focus while those in front of them struggled to make an offensive breakthrough.
But now the Black Cats have conceded 12 times in their last six games.
Against Chelsea seven days earlier, each of the three goals Sunderland shipped were attributable to their own mistakes and it was the same story on Saturday.
John O’Shea’s attempted clearance to Young’s nothing ball into the area for the first was woeful, Carlos Cuellar was ball-watching when Tom Cleverley played the one-two for the second and then van Persie far too easily slalomed between Cuellar and Titus Bramble for the third.
Martin O’Neill wasn’t helped by Danny Rose’s injury, which forced him to re-jig his back-line with two changes.
But the goals Sunderland are conceding aren’t attributable to formations or systems. They are simply poor individual errors that are being shared among the team.
Admittedly, United would have troubled most teams in the Premier League during that rampant opening 45 minutes.
The pace, movement and inter-play of Cleverley, Young and the prolific front pair was too much for the Black Cats, who were simply over-run.
Had Wayne Rooney and van Persie profited further from the opportunities created by the hosts before the break, Sunderland could have had little complaint.
Circumstances largely forced O’Neill’s hand, but, in naming such an attack-minded starting XI, there was little midfield protection for the back-line.
But against a side such as United, there can be no helping hands and it’s a trait Sunderland must snap out of, and not just for this weekend’s crucial trip to Southampton.
O’Shea, excellent against Reading, and Cuellar, far more comfortable at centre-half than right-back, proved earlier in the season that they can be an accomplished pairing.
And if Sunderland CAN rediscover their defensive resolve, it will complement an attack which is showing a marked improvement.
Even in a one-sided first half, Sunderland still had their chances – McClean selfishly opting to shoot from an impossible angle rather than feed the waiting Steven Fletcher, and Stephane Sessegnon seeing his shot cleared in the goalmouth by the head of Evra.
But it was the final 30 minutes when Sunderland genuinely worried United’s defence, even if any faint hopes of a point never seemed particularly feasible.
Perhaps that was attributable to United taking their foot off the pedal. Perhaps it was a dramatic improvement from Sunderland. More likely it was a combination of both.
But, suddenly, Sunderland threatened De Gea’s goal.
The persistent Sessegnon finally began to find space and enjoyed some joy after drifting to the flanks, with McClean operating in the hole.
But more telling was the impact of substitutes Wickham and Fraizer Campbell.
A first goal since February will have provided a major boost to Campbell after being confined to the bench all season, albeit his future at the Stadium of Light is still very much uncertain.
Yet Wickham produced the biggest contribution of Sunderland’s attackers, as he again demonstrated that he is learning how to make the most of his 6ft 3in frame.
Wickham held United’s centre-halves at arm’s length, distributed the ball out wide and was unfortunate with a couple of well-hit efforts which could easily have seen him notch only a second goal in Sunderland colours – more than a year after the first.
Fletcher remains Sunderland’s prime poacher, but Wickham is giving O’Neill genuine options.
If Sunderland are to make the most of that attacking strength though, they cannot continue to be so generous in the confines of their own penalty area.
Particularly not at St Mary’s.
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Weather for Sunderland
Monday 20 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 12 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 8 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 12 mph
Wind direction: North east