Why Ashley Young makes Manchester United better
Louis van Gaal's tenure as Manchester United manager has been tumultuous and strangely contradictory. Despite complaints of tactical confusion and ineffective possession football, United sit in their target position of the top four. The critics have been harsh, but Van Gaal will know that his team need to play at a higher tempo if they are to challenge for third place, or unlock the kind of ultra-deep defence that Sunderland will bring to Old Trafford.
As highlighted last week, United's 9.7 take-ons per match is only the ninth highest in the league, while Angel Di Maria is the only United player among the Premier League's top 30 dribblers.
Van Gaal will be unfazed by these statistics, however, and the constant comparisons with Sir Alex Ferguson's direct, attacking football are unfair and unhelpful.
But against Sunderland, who kept clean sheets against Chelsea and Liverpool earlier in the season and held United to a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture, a change of style may be in order.
Adopting a defensive approach of two extremely deep and narrow lines of four and five, Sunderland allow the opposition to pass the ball – without pressure – in front of them, making it extremely difficult to break into the box or create goalscoring opportunities.
Note how deep the majority of Sunderland's defensive actions took place in these fixtures against Liverpool and Chelsea; Gus Poyet's team rarely apply pressure outside their own defensive third.
Since their 8-0 drubbing at the hands of Southampton, Sunderland have kept five clean sheets and conceded just seven times in their eight away league matches. This is the best record in the Premier League.
A low-tempo possession-centric team like Manchester United perfectly suit Sunderland's tactics, which could make this a long and frustrating afternoon for Van Gaal. However, in United's last two matches, a solution to this problem has presented itself to the Red Devils' manager.
In successive games, the introduction of substitute Ashley Young has thrusted Van Gaal's approach into a more dynamic one, providing a much-needed burst of directness and energy into midfield.
After Young's introduction United penetrated higher up the pitch with more frequency.
Attempting (relatively) more take-ons in more advanced areas also suggests that, after Young came on, United's players found more space within which to attempt this skill.
Hugging the touchline and thus stretching the opposition backline, his dribbling skills and whipped deliveries created space for his fellow playmakers, and goalscoring opportunities. If United are to win, they will require a burst of energy, or a sudden moment of flair. Young can provide it.