By Oliver Platt
Sunderland were never likely to ask too many questions of Manchester United but this was not the first time Premier League opposition had been dispatched with the minimum of fuss. Saturday's latest victory was as comfortable as a 1-0 win can be; the champions-in-waiting have now won seven top flight matches in a row and have kept a clean sheet in the last six of those.
United barely got out of second gear, as has been the case in many of these games against the division's poorer offerings. They play some delightful football - particularly, in this case, when Alexander Buttner joined the attack from left-back - but winning comes before any aesthetic ideals.
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Man Utd's last five league results
||2-0 v Everton
||2-0 v QPR
||4-0 v Norwich|
||1-0 v Reading
||1-0 v Sunderland
But United knew what they were doing, and David De Gea, one painful collision with Nemanja Vidic aside, had a quiet day. In 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson's team have conceded a goal every four and a half hours on average; over the course of a full season, that would come out at a total of 12 goals. The Premier League record stands at 15, set by Chelsea under Jose Mourinho in the 2004-05 season.
As convincing as United look, that is, of course, to extrapolate a 10-game spell over the course of a season nearly four times as long. In reality, thanks to their gung-ho outlook for much of the first half of the campaign, they have conceded 31 goals so far. There are other Mourinho records, however, that they are on course to crack. They will pass the 95 points Chelsea collected at their current pace and, having won 25 of 30 to this point, the Blues' mark of 29 wins should also be topped.
Undeniably, we have seen two different United teams either side of the Christmas period. Like last season, when a 3-0 defeat at St James' Park sparked a run of 11 wins out of 12 that seemed to all but seal the title, a winter fixture against Newcastle has proved the turning point. That was the last of the rollercoaster Reds, Chicharito scoring in injury time to secure a 4-3 victory. Since then, no team has put more than one goal past United in the league.
Ferguson deserves credit for that turnaround. He has been around so long and become such an institution that we often judge him in grand terms and frame entire generations; frequently this season, his team has been compared to the 1999 treble-winning side due to the similarities between their respective four-man strikeforces. Rarely do we notice the fruits of old-fashioned good coaching on the part of the 71-year-old and his staff.
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An example: before the turn of the year, Michael Carrick, the club's best holding midfielder, was winning 1.3 tackles per game on average. Since January 1, that number has gone up to 2.2. It's the same story with regards to ground duels; 2.6 won per game until New Year, 4.1 won per game in 2013.
The improved protection shows in the statistics of the centre-backs and goalkeeper; Rio Ferdinand has only attempted more than one tackle in a game once in his seven outings since the beginning of January; in those games, United have conceded only three goals. De Gea's save count has halved from 4.2 per game to 2.1.
It has helped, just as it did Chelsea in 2004-05, that the standard of the division has been quite poor, both in terms of challengers to United's supremacy and among the mid-table clubs that make up the bulk of the fixture list. Eight years ago, Arsenal finished 12 points behind the champions (Everton even snuck into fourth with just 61 points) despite going on a run of 10 wins and two draws before they lost their final game of the season.
Manchester City could be even further adrift. They will, without doubt, respond accordingly in the summer, but for now the United winning machine is competing only with the record books.
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