It is approaching four years since the afternoon Manchester United left Sunderland without their expensive match-day suits after a burst sewage pipe in the away dressing room season caused tens of thousands of pounds of damage.

That spill prompted the incineration of treasured personal possessions as well as clothes but at least United were well insured. David Moyes was protected by no such reassuring insulation on Tuesday night as any restorative properties contained in the wind whipping in from Wearside's North Sea beaches were thoroughly lost on his players.

Apparently stripped of their old strength, United surrendered to a team who have won only three Premier League matches all season. Their manager's sole consolation is that, in terms of the tie, it is only half-time and United have long been famed for their comebacks, for their near miraculous powers of recovery. They can still reach the League Cup final, Moyes can still change the narrative and collect the first trophy of his managerial career. Well maybe.

During his years in charge of Everton –or seasons in the sun on Merseyside as he may now have come to regard them – he tactically outwitted a series of Sunderland managers. Perhaps those happy memories explained the satisfied way he surveyed the stands and half smiled to himself before taking his seat.

Seconds earlier there had been the warmest of handshakes for Gus Poyet. Not to mention a lingering glance of empathy. As the Sunderland manager has explained both he and United's manager are enduring "nightmares" this season, the only difference being that the latter's bad dream is "more global" and "a bit posher".

Both men are struggling with dubious legacies. If the chalice Moyes inherited from Sir Alex Ferguson was not exactly poisoned, his predecessor's failure to sign a central midfielder for six seasons has left certain members of that department looking ominously past their sell-by dates. Perhaps this reality has something to do with the current ensemble having just lost their third straight game.

Ferguson tends to restrict his United watching to Old Trafford but mounting crisis talk following Sunday's home FA Cup defeat to Swansea allied to a more than underwhelming Premier League campaign drew him to Wearside. With a hat pulled down over his eyes, the old knight peered down on Moyes from the directors box, looking suspiciously like a potentially most annoying back-seat driver.

It did not help that the younger man was steering a vehicle which, stripped of key components in the injured Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, at times resembled a surprisingly modest family saloon whose driver could only exceed motorway speed limits by clamping his foot flat to the floor.

The Premier League's seventh-placed side were making heavy weather of opponents rooted to the bottom of the table. Yet even if Danny Welbeck displayed precious little of the irrepressible invention which characterised his loan spell here under Steve Bruce, United improved almost imperceptibly as Sunderland's early tempo faded and a disappointing first half drew towards a close.

Unfortunately for Moyes, Adnan Januzaj's effort was correctly disallowed for an offside flag against Ryan Giggs and an opening 45 minutes featuring precious few first-half chances instead concluded with Sunderland one up.

As Moyes headed up the tunnel deep in conversation with Steve Round, a key lieutenant, his brow appeared so furrowed that a couple of new facial lines seem certain to appear by Wednesday morning. By way of exacerbating the visiting pain, two United old boys – Wes Brown and most notably Phil Bardsley – played pivotal roles in provoking a Giggs's own-goal stemming from a poorly defended free-kick.

Sunderland supporters were merely amused that Jonny Evans – who enjoyed an excellent stint on loan here during Roy Keane's managerial tenure – needlessly conceded that dead ball. Moyes disputed it but his case was weak, with another instance of a referee taking the blame resembling a suspiciously Ferguson-esque diversionary tactic.

While the distraction of a goal gave locals something to think about other than praising Marcos Alonso's superb home debut and pondering whether Lee Cattermole will have much of a future under Poyet should Liam Bridcutt be granted his wish of a transfer from Brighton, Moyes could have been forgiven for dressing room anger. His defence failed to properly mind Brown and another former United face, John O'Shea, at that dead ball.

For Nemanja Vidic, temporary redemption was swift, United's key centre-half beginning the second half by out-leaping both Brown and O'Shea to head a corner emphatically beyond Vito Mannone.

Moyes could breath again but it would not have been lost on Ferguson that, like Sunderland, United rarely looked like scoring from open play. Even worse they swiftly conceded from another set piece. When Adam Johnson won a penalty following Tom Cleverley's foolish challenge, Fabio Borini, borrowed from Liverpool, converted it, sending David de Gea the wrong way in a manner emblematic of United's present plight.

By the end, Moyes rocked back and forward in his padded dugout seat, talking to himself. He was surrounded by a sizeable backroom entourage but looked utterly lonely.