It was not a win of emphatic proportions for Manchester United, given that they brought minimal spectacle to the party and were helped substantially on their way by the highly questionable dismissal of Sebastian Larsson in the first half’s closing moments.
But while the red card provided David Moyes with extenuating circumstances for defeat, there is an overwhelming sense that his side – four points adrift, one point in seven games and not a solitary goal in 675 minutes of Premier League football – have given up the ghost. The boos at the end were muffled and half-hearted, much like the performance.
It was on the corresponding weekend last season that Sam Allardyce’s Sunderland faced down the prospective champions Leicester City on the Wearside afternoon when Claudio Ranieri shed tears. They scrapped to the death that day, even though they were vanquished by Jamie Vardy. The defending initially had some intent on this occasion, with the Belgian Jason Denayer offering a flicker of light in the darkness, but there was neither energy nor belief to counter attack with.
Moyes urged them to break up field at pace when they had turned possession over - to no avail. It is a mystery how some of the stars of Allardyce’s resurrected Sunderland team, like Wahbi Khazri, have fallen out of favour with the manager. This midfield of his was anaemic. Survival was “still as difficult; probably more difficult. There’s no disguising the fact it’s difficult,” admitted Moyes who must on Monday provide his observations to the FA on his “slap” comments to BBC reporter Vicki Sparks.
To his credit, he did not attempt to hide behind the red card. “I’m not blaming referees. Our position is where we are. We’re bottom of the league,” he said and there was no evidence that they would have claimed a point with all 11 men at their disposal.
Moyes’ claim that “it’s not even a booking” was valid, though. Larsson and Ander Herrera both went for a stray ball in midfield. The Swede made contact with the ball and caught Herrera as he followed through with a boot which was a football’s height from the ground. It was not a reckless challenge, nor one in which Larsson was out of control. The inconsistencies of referee Craig Pawson screamed out, thereafter: Lamine Kone was not even booked for placing his studs onto substitute Marcus Rashford’s foot.
The dismissal left United, already a goal to the good, to pick off three points. The first half’s single moment of class had already sent them ahead: Zlatan Ibrahimovic receiving a Herrera pass, back to goal, and ripping into a pocket of space to his left which, with the reactions of full back Billy Jones and Lamine Kone too slow, allowed the striker to despatch a 28th goal of his extraordinary season into the bottom right hand corner.
The second half was 46 seconds old when the lead was doubled by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, which said something for Moyes’ powers of motivation. The 28-year-old drifted into the left hand side of the Sunderland area to receive a ball from Matteo Darmian and send it through Kone’s legs and beyond Jordan Pickford. The goalkeeper might have reacted faster.
Any hope that Moyes' players would be motivated out of a sense of injustice to give the game some fight soon evaporated. The best of their frail offering was an effort from Jermain Defoe, who took a ball from Didier Ndong towards the United area and fired over the bar.
Mourinho had not exactly demonstrated ambition, either. He fielded a three-defensive midfield and retaining the two players of pace – Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial – on the bench against the division’s weakest side. There are times when his selection seems part of a strategy to minimise United’s threat and demonstrate the need for spending this summer. Yet they have leapfrogged Arsenal and if they can damage Chelsea next Sunday, the Manchester derby on April 27 could still be a top four knock-out. “If we [didn’t] win today it's almost mathematically impossible [to make the top four,” Mourinho said.
His two young forwards did arrive eventually though United’s best chance fell to Paul Pogba, who thundered an Ibrahimovic knock down over the bar when he had time to pick his spot. Rashford finished things up, when an intelligent return pass to him from the string-puller Ibrahimovic confounded Denayer and allowed the Englishman to send a low shot beyond Pickford. It was a morgue by the end, from a Sunderland perspective, with swathes of empty seats vacated by supporters who’d decided there were better ways of spending a warm spring afternoon.
Sunderland: (4-1-4-1) Pickford; Jones, Kone, Denayer, Oviedo (Manquillo 38); Cattermole (Borini xx); Ndong, Rodwell, Larsson, Anichebe; Defoe. Substitutes: Mannone, Djilobodji, Khazri, Pienaar, Gibson
Manchester United: (4-1-4-1) Romero; Darmian, Rojo, Bailly, Shaw (Blind xx); Fellaini, Herrera, Pogba; Lingard (Rashford xx), Ibrahimovic, Mkhitaryan (Martial xx). Substitutes: Carrick, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Pereira
Referee: C Pawson (South Yorkshire)