Preview: Manchester United vs. Sunderland AFC

Michael Regan

A preview of Manchester United's upcoming Premier League fixture with Sunderland: tactical keys, team news, form guide, lineup projections, TV info, referee appointment, and odds.

Manchester United continue their Premier League campaign on Saturday when they host Sunderland AFC at Old Trafford. Last season, these two sides met twice and during this same fixture in November 2011, it was former United man Wes Brown that scored the winner... into his own goal. During the reverse fixture on last season's final day, the Red Devils again emerged victorious by a 1-0 scoreline after Wayne Rooney's close-range first-half strike. That day, though, is a famous one in the Premier League's history -- or an infamous one from a United perspective -- as it's when Manchester City miraculously scored two goals at the death to snatch the title.

MANCHESTER UNITED

Form Guide: Manchester United are riding high after their 3-2 derby defeat of City last weekend at the Eithad. Sir Alex Ferguson's men have collected 39 points thus far from 16 matches and they currently have a six point advantage on their 'noisy screaming neighbours'. Overall, the Red Devils have won four successive league matches.

Team News: Anderson, Nani, Shinji Kagawa, and Jonny Evans have been ruled out for this match. (Full Team News Report)

SUNDERLAND

Form Guide: Martin O'Neill's side have collected 16 points from 16 matches and they currently sit 15th in the league table. Sunderland defeated Reading 3-0 at the midweek but prior to that, they hadn't won in four successive league matches. They were defeated 1-3 by Chelsea last weekend at the Stadium of Light.

Team News: Phil Bardsley, Wes Brown, and Lee Cattermole are all expected to be unavailable. Danny Rose and Adam Johnson picked p knocks at the midweek but both are expected to be fit for this match.

PROJECTING LINEUPS

United: Either David de Gea or Anders Lindegaard will be in goal. Rio Ferdinand is certain to start at center-back and he'll be partnered by either Chris Smalling or Nemanja Vidic. Rafael and Patrice Evra are the expected full-backs.

In central-midfield, Michael Carrick is probable to feature and he'll likely be partnered by either Tom Cleverley or Paul Scholes. Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher may be in contention as well. Out wide, Antonio Valencia is expected on the right while Ashley Young seems most likely on the left flank. Danny Welbeck is possible on the left as well.

Up front, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are the clear first-choice partnership. However, the latter was ill earlier in the week so if he were to miss out, then Javier Hernandez would deputise if needed.

Sunderland: Simon Mignolet is the No.1 while Carlos Cuellar and John O'Shea are the first-choice center-back duo. Craig Gardner is expected at right-back but if he's pushed into midfield, then O'Shea is possible to slide over to the right while Titus Bramble could come in central-defense. Danny Rose will be at left-back.

In central-midfield, Gardner is possible but Sebastian Larsson and Jack Colback seem more likely. On the flanks, Johnson and James McClean are expected. If the former, though, cannot start, then Larsson is possible on the right while David Vaughan would be possible in central-midfield.

Up front, Steven Fletcher will be the lead striker while Stephane Sessegnon will play in behind in support.

TACTICAL KEYS

* What will Sunderland's approach be?: In Sunderland's 4-4-1-1 shape, there is a lot of space between the lines when their center-backs don't push up and play closer to the central-midfielders. In their match two weekends ago at Norwich City, O'Neill instructed his side to play with a high-line as they cohesively tried to press the Canaries. However, the lack of pace from his central-defenders was exposed when Norwich's Anthony Pilkington and Grant Holt continually got in behind the defense. For the latter to do so was alarming as the striker is not exactly known for any sort of electrifying pace.

Against Chelsea last weekend, Sunderland stood off and their lines were a good 5-10 yards deeper in comparison to the Norwich match. O'Neill tried to keep the shape compact in the back and they didn't really close down the Blues until the ball entered the midfield zone. The drawback to this approach was that Chelsea's deep-lying midfielders and defenders enjoyed plenty of time on the ball and when Sunderland did win possession, it was often deep in their own half. Fletcher, the Black Cat's center-forward, was often isolated as support was too far away during transitions.

Which approach will O'Neill take at Old Trafford? If they stand off, then that leaves too much time and space for United's deep-lying central-midfielders -- the likes of Carrick, Scholes, and Cleverley are very talented distributors. If Sunderland actively close down in midfield but don't play with a high-line, then that leaves plenty of space for Rooney between the lines. If they do play a high-line, then space is left for United's attackers to get in behind the defense.

* Winning the battle in the wide areas: The key battle areas in this match is likely to occur in the wide areas. No other side in the Premier League plays less through the middle of the pitch than does Sunderland. Their first-choice wingers, Johnson and McClean, will each seek situations where they can take on their marker one-on-one in an attempt to get crosses in the box for Fletcher. On their day, both wingers can also get themselves into goal-scoring positions.

On the left-side, which is typically McClean's, Rose will get forward to support the attack from his left-back spot. Fortunately for United, Valencia does well to track back and they should likely be okay in 2 v 2 situations on that flank. When possession is won though, Valencia and Rafael can advantage of McClean's tendency to switch off defensively by breaking forward for 2 v 1 overloads -- this is something the United duo excel at. On the opposite side, Johnson will not get nearly the support in attack from his right-back that McClean gets from Rose.

If United can contain Sunderland in the wide areas, then they'll be able to choke off their chief route for creating chances. The flanks are also where United excel in attack and if they can break quickly enough, or if the midfielders and Rooney can drag the opposition's defense out of position with accurate and arrowed diagonal balls out to the flanks, then they'll likely be able to create a plethora of chances.

* Set-pieces: United have been dangerous from set-pieces this season as evident by their league-leading 11 goals from dead-ball situations. However, they've also been susceptible to conceding goals when defending against them. In general, there are no issues with their hybrid zonal-marking system from corners nor is there any major concerns with the personnel. More than anything, the defensive problems during set-pieces have to do more with simple execution and being aware of responsibilities. For example, when Valencia was substituted off last weekend during the derby, no one took over his duties as the player patrolling the space at the top of the penalty area during the opposition's corners. Pablo Zabaleta eventually scored City's equaliser from this vacant space soon after the Ecuadorian departed. If United can prevent any Sunderland set-piece goals, they'll likely avoid the away side getting a surprising result at Old Trafford.

KO: 3:00pm GMT, 10:00am EST | Old Trafford

Live TV: none (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.)

Referee: Chris Foy

Odds: Manchester United 1/5, Draw 11/2, Sunderland 10/1

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