Mixing youth with veterans is needed as a loss at last-place Sunderland could spell disaster for United's new manager, writes Richard Jolly.
Manchester United manager David Moyes has finger on the panic button
As ever where Manchester United are concerned, thoughts turn to Sir Alex Ferguson.
Maybe, fleetingly, he thought one of the great managerial careers had its happy ending on Sunderland’s Stadium of Light turf.
When the final whistle blew in United’s 1-0 win in May 2012, it seemed as though Ferguson had seen off the challenge of Manchester City and won his 13th Premier League title.
Instead, Sergio Aguero intervened moments later, deep into injury time at the Etihad Stadium. United traded celebrations for commiserations.
It extended Ferguson’s managerial life by a year, precipitating a quest for a valedictory trophy that would allow a serial winner to go out on top. Which he did, before retiring five months ago.
And so perhaps United’s problems were postponed by 12 months. They could have been plunged into uncertainty last year. Instead it was delayed and life after Ferguson, which never promised to be easy, has proved harder than expected.
His successor, David Moyes, arrives at the Stadium of Light having overseen United’s worst start to a Premier League season, with the consolation that if his side have stuttered and stumbled, Sunderland have both stood still and gone backward.
The caretaker, Kevin Ball, is their second manager of the season, but they have a solitary point. Like United, they are seeing potential rivals accelerate away from them.
Sunderland’s form should render them ideal opponents for Moyes.
Yet in the post-Ferguson era, nothing is as simple as it seemed.
The retired manager’s final season at Old Trafford produced a dividend in the shape of Robin van Persie – had Ferguson retired in 2012, perhaps the Dutchman would be plying his trade for Manchester City now – but also took its toll on an ageing defence.
Moyes did not take the struggling Rio Ferdinand to Donetsk for Wednesday’s Uefa Champions League game. Their ages dictate that Nemanja Vidic and even the usually indefatigable Patrice Evra cannot play every match, either.
It is a delicate balancing act for a manager who began the season displaying an acute reliance on the veterans.
Squad rotation is new phenomenon for Moyes, who always operated with small pools of players at Everton, and his early attempts at it have been a case of trial and error. Mistakes were made in selection as well as performance when West Bromwich Albion won at Old Trafford last week.
He fielded two almost entirely different teams against Albion and Shakhtar Donetsk, with only David de Gea and Michael Carrick beginning both games.
Yet the visit to Sunderland is United’s final match before the international break. Besides providing Moyes with a chance to pick his strongest side, this will give an indication what it is.
For only the fourth time in a season in which both have been sidelined, he may pair Robin van Persie with Wayne Rooney in attack, which means the status of others can shift by the game.
Did Tom Cleverley’s encouraging display in Donetsk push him ahead of Marouane Fellaini in the queue for midfield places?
Is Danny Welbeck’s latest goal a sign he will become the first-choice winger? How will Moyes blend youth and experience in defence? Will he stick with 4-3-3 or go back to 4-4-1-1?
Under Ferguson, the assumption would have been that, whichever team he picked and however many were surprised by his selection, the result would be secured.
Under Moyes, there is no such guarantee. And in a season of chastening lows, Sunderland’s failings increase the potential for ignominy.
Should his side fail to win against a side who are yet to take a point at home, Moyes, once again, would be under the microscope and United may hark back to their darkest day at Sunderland, when the bitterest of blows was cushioned by the knowledge that Ferguson remained and that, sooner or later, he would win again.