United bossed the match from start to finish, but Burnley managed to steal themselves a 0-2 lead. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side showed their strength by roaring back to draw 2-2. What did we learn?
1. United had problems beyond Mourinho
It was easy to blame José Mourinho for everything wrong at Manchester United, but that was never true. Sure, he was a massive problem and removing him was not only the correct thing to do but should have been done much earlier. That said, some of the issues that plagued his time at United have continued into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign, and after the great results, they were exposed by Burnley tonight.
There are too many squad players whose styles and skill-sets don’t really mesh with United overall, which is a huge issue because then any rotation carries with it inherent risk (more on that later). A winger to rotate with Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard would be most useful (perhaps they should take a look at Callum Hudson-Odoi’s transfer request?) as well.
The club is clearly shorn of a good right-back. Ashley Young’s crossing is still sublime but due to age he can’t make pounding forward runs on the overlap, driving to the byline and giving United’s right-flank the same energy Luke Shaw does the left. Young’s cross was key to United’s equaliser but for so much of the night he simply whipped balls into defenders legs.
The club obviously needs a new centre-back. Phil Jones is consistently an accident waiting to happen; his defending on Burnley’s second goal today was shambolic as it destabilised the entire defensive line and he didn’t even challenge for the ball. In fact his dawdling in the face of Jack Cork is what led to the Englishman so easily finding Ashley Barnes for Burnley’s first goal, too.
2. Burnley back to basics
Burnley have had a weird season. After all the praise being heaped on them last season they followed up by delivering a season of thoroughly average football. It’s not like they’ve been defensively solid and just unlucky or anything; or become an attacking side that was now getting rinsed in defence. No, they’ve just been… sorta… bad.
Not tonight, though. Burnley rocked up to Old Trafford, staring United’s eight match win streak right in the face and suddenly started playing like it was 2017 again. They were big and strong, defensively well-structured and relentless in their application. They chased down every loose ball, they threw their bodies in the way of every cross, pass and shot.
Absorbing pressure is one thing but Burnley managed to break out and take an incredible lead. After this they defended like it was Helm’s Deep, and whilst they couldn’t keep United out, with Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood leading the charge of the Rohirrim, they secured a memorable draw at least.
3. Mata and Pereira are in the wrong team
Andreas Pereira is a youngster of great talent who’s got it in him to be a fine midfielder. He’s excellent at retaining possession and good enough on the dribble that one can see him growing into a quality playmaker. Juan Mata’s accolades need no elucidation, he’s a sublime footballer and has been for the last decade.
So why does he, and Pereira, often look so out of place in the United side?
Pereira is at least young and barely features, so that could explain his woes, but Mata is a semi-regular in the XI. Sometimes he makes everyone around him look better as he links the play and buzzes around the field like an even lovelier David Silva. Other times, like today against Burnley, he looks like a dawdling chancer lucky to still have a contract.
Essentially, the problem is that both players thrive in a style of football that simply isn’t suited to the rest of the United players. They need a side that plays collective football, with a heavy reliance on quick passing, possession and players interchanging positions. One can see both men thriving as central midfielders for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, for instance. But in United’s system? They will always frustrate. Even before his mistake to hand Burnley the lead, United fans were growing frustrated with Pereira’s display, feeling him too “safe.” And whilst Mata played the full 90 it was clear that his short-passing moves to try and engineer space weren’t having enough of an effect.
It’d be a surprise if both men were still at Old Trafford next season.
4. Lukaku’s limitations laid bare
After a superb performance in the FA Cup, Romelu Lukaku was once again a frustrating figure for Manchester United here against Burnley. With the exception of his nicely-weighted pass for Marcus Rashford for what should have been an early goal, the Belgian was essentially anonymous in what should have been a nice game for him to rack up some goals.
It must frustrate Solskjaer for Lukaku to play so well out wide against Arsenal but when put back into his preferred position of striker, deliver such a damp squib of a display. But then that’s Lukaku for you; he is a striker that needs a consistent service into the box, usually in the form of crosses. Without that, he can struggle to impose himself as a central striker, as he did against Burnley. It’s telling that with United chasing a goal, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took their £75m no. 9 off the pitch. And it worked.
5. The streak is over, but Solskjaer is surely the man
No manager has ever won their first nine matches in English football, and now no one will. Losing the streak must hurt to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who must have thought they could at least make it to 10 wins on the spin before more heavyweight clashes arrived to stop them. And now all those shouts for him to get the job permanently look silly, right?
Man Utd have dropped points for the first time under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer:
It could have been a lot worse. 😅 pic.twitter.com/ofVSqXswCg
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 29, 2019
Even with the draw against Burnley, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer stated his case and showed why he’s the right man for the job. From the very first whistle, United were the dominant side. Alright some of his rotations didn’t work, but the fact is he did rotate and did look to give squad guys their shine. That’s important to keep players fresh and the entire squad happy. It also should have worked, with Marcus Rashford missing an easy 1v1 that would have given United a lead and put them into cruise control.
So United went 0-1 down… it can happen. What’s key is they responded brilliantly. In the second half they went 0-2 down. The wind could have come out of their sails, but no, they kept on pushing forward. There was never a sense of gloom and misery as there has been with previous coaches, this United side were still positive, still playing their football. No panic, just pressure being applied.
You could sense United weren’t giving this up. And they didn’t. Solskjaer made subs, one of them very bold (imagine removing your star striker when you’re chasing two goals!) and adjusted his tactics. United upped the tempo. In the end, it worked. His side fought, scratched and clawed their way back to 2-2 in stoppage time and had the match gone on a minute longer they’d probably have gone on to win. And, well, that’s just so very Manchester United, isn’t it?