This was a return to the bad old days under David Moyes. Plodding, impotent and characterless: these type of pejoratives were supposedly banished in Ryan Giggs's brave new Manchester United world.
Instead, the old quality deficit again glared. Only when Danny Welbeck was introduced in the closing part of the contest did the champions regain some kind of potency via his willingness to take the fight to Sunderland.
Giggs said: "It was just that lack of quality in the final third, and a lack of concentration. I still believe there is quality in the dressing room. We have shown good form away from home but at Old Trafford it seems to have been a problem. In past seasons there would be waves and waves of shots and saves and you could always sense a goal was coming, but this season it doesn't seem to have happened."
For Gus Poyet's side, this fine result followed the draw at Manchester City, and wins over Chelsea and Cardiff City.
If Norwich City lose at Stamford Bridge on Sunday then Sunderland's three-point advantage with a match in hand, should be enough to consign the Canaries to relegation, due to the Black Cats' goal difference, which is 13 better than that of Norwich.
Poyet said: "I am feeling great. We could have a hand from Chelsea. We need to concentrate on what we do. What we have done in the last four games is unique, incredible. A miracle was the word I used a few weeks ago and apparently every now and again it happens."
The first goal conceded by United in the Giggs era came from the boot of Sebastian Larsson. Connor Wickham continued to make a case for being the division's in-form player with a slick pirouette and cross from the right that went precisely at the Swede. Allowed too much room by the home defence – and Michael Carrick, in particular – Sunderland's No7 planted the volley expertly beyond David de Gea.
This had Poyet clenching his fist in jubilation and Giggs walking back to his seat in frustration. There would be further food for the Welshman's half-time thoughts. Instead of a United fightback the visitors dominated the remainder of the stanza. Adam Johnson was the next recipient of United kindness when the winger found himself in the area with ball at feet and no defender close. Only his own clumsy control ended the threat.
Immediately after Larsson's goal Giggs had told Robin van Persie and Marouane Fellaini to warm up. Yet when United emerged for the second half the lineup remained the same.
The second side chosen by Giggs had shown five changes from his first. Out went Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa, Tom Cleverley, Wayne Rooney and Antonio Valencia and in came Ashley Young, Javier Hernández, Juan Mata, Darren Fletcher and Nani.
Wayne Rooney's twin maladies of stomach complaint and a troublesome groin kept him out, though his manager claimed he would be fine for England's World Cup campaign.
United almost equalised when Nani's backheel put Patrice Evra clear along the left. His delivery found Hernández but the close-range attempt deflected off Wes Brown for a corner.
From this Nemanja Vidic believed he had won a penalty when his header hit Brown but Howard Webb turned the appeal down.
Until Sunderland's opener, poise had been a fair description of what United showed. There was discernible control and pattern to their play, though scant goal attempts.
One breathtaking break did occur, on 19 minutes. Young burst down the right before switching play to Nani on the left. The Portuguese skipped towards Vito Mannone's goal and after offloading the ball it eventually found its way back and his ensuing shot threatened to beat the goalkeeper before curling wide.
As the match threatened to meander away from United, Giggs finally introduced Van Persie, for a first appearance due to a knee injury since 19 March, and Welbeck, on 66 minutes. Further embarrassment for United nearly occurred when the substitute Emanuele Giaccherini hit the post, and close to the end Fabio Borini smacked the ball on to the bar.
Before kick-off Giggs had signalled that despite the club's pursuit of Louis van Gaal, his role as temporary manager was starting to feel natural. "My first week as interim manager, I must say, took me totally out of my comfort zone, but I didn't really have time to think about anything," he wrote.
"But then, when I came in on Monday morning, it was as if everything had changed. I came into the training ground and just felt totally comfortable in the role. I'm enjoying it more and more each day. I've had a lot more time to think and everything has felt much more settled."
This defeat, though, is hardly a good calling card for the main job.