Sir Alex Ferguson refused to blame the pre-match disruption caused by a collapsed ceiling and burst sewerage pipe for his side's worst display in the North East since their 5-0 thrashing at Newcastle in 1996.
Up but down: Manchester United's Edwin van der Sar wasn't happy with a point at Sunderland
But it was the United manager's surprise team selections, and the ineffective performances of some of his shadow squad, which lay behind the 0-0 draw that extended his side's run without a Barclays Premier League away win this season to four matches.
Ferguson restored Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic to the heart of his defence for the first time this season, although they only had to contend with Sunderland's busy lone striker, Darren Bent.
The bigger shock came up front. Perhaps believing a win at the Stadium of Light was a shoo-in - United had won on their last four visits and scored 10 goals - Ferguson ignored pleas from Wayne Rooney to play despite ankle and personal problems and selected Michael Owen for his first Premier League start since January.
With Federico Macheda playing the central striker, Owen was employed on the left and Anderson on the right of an attacking three.
But after United had managed just one weak shot off target from Nani in the first period, the question was how many of his strikers he would withdraw, not which one.
It was the sacrifice of former England star Owen for Dimitar Berbatov at the break which provoked this reaction from Sunderland boss Steve Bruce.
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'It's not often Man United have to change their system because of how well you are playing,' he said. 'We took the game to them and on another day we could have won it.' Sunderland did play well and United were vastly improved in the second half, with Berbatov providing a bigger threat to Michael Turner and Titus Bramble, who were both excellent throughout.
But fellow substitutes Javier Hernandez and Bebe, making his first Premier League appearance in the last 10 minutes, made much less of an impact. United managed just one shot on target and they were lucky to escape with a point.
IT'S THAT OLD TRAVEL SICKNESSManchester United 's patchy form has seen them fail to win any of their four games on the road and that record should ring alarm bells at Old Trafford.
The last time they started this badly away from home in 1989-90, Sir Alex Ferguson's side finished only five places above the drop zone in 13th.
Steve Bruce and Mike Phelan, both on the touchline at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, were in that 1989 team who drew with Crystal Palace and lost to Derby and Norwich before an infamous 5-1 thrashing at Manchester City.
This time around injuries to key players such as Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney can be blamed but Ferguson has also shuffled his side more than most. The manager made five changes to his starting line-up at Sunderland and has kept an unchanged team only onceaway from home this season.
Edwin van der Sar pulled off the save of the match to deny Steed Malbranque and Bent squandered the best late chance as Sunderland finished the stronger.
United face West Brom at Old Trafford after the international break, but it is their away form which is worrying Fergie and his players.
Van der Sar said: 'It was two points dropped and we have dropped too many points in away games. It is disappointing. You want to win but somehow you have to make up for it along the way. We have conceded one or two too many goals away from home, especially late on.
'When teams play United they up their game. United are a big scalp. We have to deal with that but we all know this hasn't been the start we wanted.'
John O'Shea added: 'Hopefully these draws will not be costly. We will obviously knowmore towards the end of the season. We're not losing the games which isa huge factor and I think hopefully we will turn the draws around very soon.'
This was as close as Bruce has come to ending his run of 16 games without a win over United, but it was another assured performance against one of the best sides in the Premier League.
What frustrates him is their poorer performances against the rest of the division and a sorry away record. Bruce said: 'I would have taken eight points from seven games with the fixtures we've had.
'It is the big test now. We have to give thefans that sort of performance against the so-called lesser teams because it is all right getting yourself prepared and up for the big games - now we have to do it against the other teams in the league.'
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Explore more:People: Michael Turner, Alex Ferguson, Darren Bent, Steve Bruce, Michael Owen, Nemanja Vidic, John O'Shea, Federico Macheda, Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney, Bebe, Rio Ferdinand, Titus Bramble, Edwin Van Der Sar, Nani, Mike Phelan Places: Newcastle, Norwich, United Kingdom