After yet another uninspiring first half, United shifted scored either side of halftime through Memphis Depay and Wayne Rooney before Juan Mata added a third late on to clinch United’s third consecutive league win.
Here’s five talking points from Saturday afternoon.
1) Martial is the real deal
For the first time since joining United on deadline day the Frenchman did not score but his performance against Sunderland confirmed he belongs to this level. Having scored three goals in two Premier League appearances, the 19-year-old proved there is more to his game than just a lethal eye for the goal, as he held the line brilliantly and was a constant thorn in Sunderland’s side.
Deployed as a lone striker, Martial ran at the visitors’ back four at every opportunity, seeking space in behind Sunderland’s centre-backs and, occasionally, drifting wider to open space up for Memphis and Rooney.
His movement won United at least three free-kicks in dangerous positions, from which Mata and Memphis should have done better, and led to Rooney’s goal. Martial would have added another assist to his name had Memphis not wasted a glorious chance one-on-one with the keeper after having been unselfishly set-up by the Frenchman.
2) Blind’s development continues
Throughout the summer, as United sought to add a world class centre-back to their ranks before eventually ending up empty handed, Daley Blind was singled out as the weak link of Louis Van Gaal’s side.
No matter that the Dutchman is an extremely intelligent footballer, tactically versatile and able to read the game better than most. His lack of height and speed meant he was not suited for the job, according to pundits and fans alike.
While the Dutchman has and perhaps will again suffer against quicker strikers than Sunderland’s, he’s proved to be a much more accomplished defender than most thought and his passing has added a weapon to United’s arsenal.
Having set up Rooney’s goal on Wednesday, Blind’s pass to Mata proved pivotal in United’s opener. A centre-back capable of opening up defences is a luxury.
3) United must find the killer pass
Despite being criticised for their lack of verve going forward, United have now scored three goals in their last three Premier League games – having also put three past Ipswich Town in the Capital One Cup – but a familiar struggle to break down teams that defend deep remains.
On Saturday, particularly during the first 45 minutes, United got in good positions only to produce some atrocious final balls. Corners that can’t beat the first man, overhit crosses and sloppy passes must be cut out if United are to continue to improve.
4) Darmian is the versatile full-back United needed
Since joining from Torino this summer, Matteo Darmian has arguably been United’s best buy, making the right-back spot his own. However, with Luke Shaw sidelined for the rest of the season and Van Gaal unwilling to break up his centre-back partnership to deploy Blind at left-back, the Italy international has been shifted to the other side of the pitch and has impressed in the role.
Darmian showed the usual composure and diligence and was threatening when going forward. The kind of versatile defender Van Gaal needed.
5) Can United kick on now?
While seeing United at the top of the league has unquestionably made Saturday night and Sunday morning a lot better, reading anything into it would be foolish. With only seven games gone, this season has already proved to be almost impossible to predict, as Chelsea continue to stutter, while City’s blistering start is a distant memory after two defeats on the bounce.
Bar the loss to Swansea and the draw against Newcastle, United have made the most of a relatively easy start but October is set to be a huge test for Van Gaal’s side, as they face Arsenal and Everton away before welcoming City at the end of the month.
Should United be top of the league or thereabouts in four weeks, they could be considered genuine title challengers for the first time in two season.