It's been that kind of season.
On Tuesday, Manchester United traveled to Sunderland for the first leg of their Capital One League Cup semifinals tie and fell 2-1 on an own goal and a dubious penalty, imperiling their chances in the only competition that still seems winnable to them. That made it their second cup loss in three days, after they dropped their FA Cup third round bout with Swansea City 2-1 on Sunday. United have now lost all three of the games they've played in 2014 -- their worst start of a year since 1932.
Because it's been that kind of season.
If the goals were dubious, Sunderland's win was nevertheless just. The Black Cats could have been forgiven for consolidating their home field advantage and bunkering in. United haven't been able to pick anybody apart of late, after all. And the home team is every bit as much in a crisis as their underachieving visitors, stuck in last place in the Premier League as they are.
But Sunderland showed a willingness early on to run at the once-imperious Red Devils. For a long stretch of the first half, in fact, they had United hemmed in and pinned back. The defending English champions don't put any fear into anybody anymore. That's the big difference between United last season and United this season, the margin between the Sir Alex Ferguson Era and the David Moyes Era. The awe is gone. The sense of facing a giant, no matter their form of flaws, no longer intimidates opponents into a 1-0 psychological deficit before the first whistle is even blown.
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Certainly, United have excuses. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie are still injured. Neither Shinji Kagawa nor Marouane Fellaini have proved the solution in central midfield beside Michael Carrick. And the old, thin back line is without Rio Ferdinand and, after he stumbled off in this game, perhaps Jonny Evans.
But once again, Moyes' game plan was all wrong. Somehow, the bulk of attacking is done by the backs, pushing deep into enemy territory. But Rafael or Patrice Evra have never shown all that much proficiency in attacking. Certainly not the way Leighton Baines did at Moyes's Everton . His tactics, therefore, still seem tailored to the underdog team he no longer manages.
Indeed, it took half an hour before it even occurred to United to start venturing forward. And when they did, Sunderland easily absorbed those jousts and exploited the room that opened up behind Rafael and Evra. Aside from a 25th minute run at goal and shot off the bar by the ageless Ryan Giggs, an act decidedly against the run of play, United mustered very little by way of chances in the first half.
Only the 18-year-old boy wonder Adnan Januzaj could fashion a little danger with his unbridled dribbles. The lone silver lining to United's unsightly season ran at Sunderland when given the chance and gave his defenders fits with his lithe strides bringing to mind a young Giggs. He had a goal disallowed in the 38th minute after his first attempt caromed off that very Giggs, who was in an offside position, before it rolled back at him and he swept in the rebound.
But it was hardly enough. In the 47th minute, on the brink of halftime, Evans committed a pointless foul near the half-way line. Sebastian Larsson lofted the ball towards the back post of United's goal, where Wes Brown connected with it and sent a low cross into the goal mouth. There, Phil Bardsley pressured the usually unimpeachable Giggs into pushing the ball over his own line.
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Early in the second half United bagged an equalizer as Nemanja Vidic once again rose tallest on a corner and hammered home his header by the far post. But in the 65th minute, Adam Johnson strode at United's box, made light contact with Tom Cleverley a few inches outside of the area, hurtled to ground inside of it and earned a penalty. Fabio Borini converted emphatically. Because, well, it's been that kind of season for United.
A late barrage of chances yielded nothing for them. For all their good intentions, nothing quite fit. No attack, no matter how well conceived, came off.
On the sideline, Moyes stood with his arms crossed, furiously instructing his players on how they really ought to be performing. But yet again, nothing worked as United took their eighth loss of the domestic season. So after a while, he gave up and just looked on in disbelief, muttering either to himself or a colleague. From up on high in a director's box, Ferguson glowered below his beret, mashing harder on his gum than ever.