Goals from Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford saw Manchester United finish the calendar year with an important 2-0 away win over Burnley, ensuring they close the gap on their top-four rivals as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men target consistency and continuity in 2020.
After being stunned 2-0 by strugglers Watford last weekend, the Red Devils have now secured successive victories and capitalised on Tottenham dropping points away at Norwich to close the gap on Chelsea to just one point. They play Arsenal this afternoon.
Martial showed great composure to score his tenth goal of the campaign across all competitions, making no mistake from close-range as Andreas Pereira’s pressing forced a mistake in possession from Charlie Taylor. Within seconds, United broke on the counter-attack, Pereira teed up the Frenchman and goalkeeper Nick Pope was left helpless.
The visitors were largely dominant in the early exchanges, but struggled to assert such force on the scoreline before the deadlock was eventually broken. Rashford forced Pope into a good stop from distance and hit the post, while Martial’s earlier goalbound effort was cleared off-the-line by Phil Bardsley. Brandon Williams’ teasing cross was begging to be met with a final touch, which never came.
They were edging closer to an eventual breakthrough and although Sean Dyche will have been undoubtedly disappointed with the manner in which his side conceded on the stroke of half-time, you couldn’t argue that it wasn’t coming.
Martial missed further chances to put the game to bed after half-time, before David de Gea made an excellent save to thwart Bardsley’s rasping drive from distance. The Spaniard kept a first league clean sheet since September 14, but didn’t have much to do.
Daniel James utilised his blistering speed to devastating effect on the counter, before unselfishly releasing a neatly-weighted pass into Rashford. He skipped past Pope and evaded a last-ditch defensive challenge to bundle goalwards, securing all three points.
While United have now won back-to-back games, Burnley have lost twice in the space of three days – after a 1-0 away defeat by Everton on Boxing Day.
It’s their tenth league defeat of the 2019-20 campaign and with points increasingly difficult to come by in the bottom half, the Clarets sit just six points off Aston Villa, who currently occupy the third and final relegation place. With all of that in mind, here’s a look at five talking points from United’s latest win:
#5 Burnley end 2019 in underwhelming fashion
Burnley finish 2019 on a frustrating low, when things could have been much different for the Clarets, had they executed better in hotly-contested matches this season.
After 20 games this campaign, they have already lost exactly half and that doesn’t exactly bode well for a team that previously prided themselves on being notoriously difficult to beat – especially at home. In fairness, five of their seven wins this term have come at home, though their record against the league’s top six continues to worsen at a point where it really should be better: they all have significant weaknesses, Liverpool aside.
It begs a bigger question: is this as far as Sean Dyche can take them? Mid-table obscurity?
They don’t possess the squad depth nor real quality to justify another European adventure, as evidenced by their short-lived success last season. Having failed to truly strengthen the squad over the summer, it seems inevitable their prized asset Dwight McNeil (20) will be out of Lancashire before long.
Are they content being that type of Premier League club? Good enough to stay up, enjoying memorable moments occasionally, but not good enough to exceed expectations and take the top-flight by storm? After a underwhelming display here against a far from full strength United side, there are plenty of questions to be answered in the New Year.
#4 Encouraging displays from Martial and Pereira
That leads me nicely onto my next point. Solskjaer made four changes to the side that recovered from an early scare to rout Newcastle 4-1, with Nemanja Matic making his first league start since late September. He rotated his fullbacks, while Daniel James started on the right-hand side of his 4-2-3-1 formation with Martial leading the frontline.
Martial took his goal well, had another cleared off the line in the first-half and on another day, probably would have scored a hat-trick. It’s fair to say since his arrival from Monaco four years ago, he’s mixed impressive displays with more frustrating performances – while battling persistent injuries and adapting to various creative roles.
His reputation in-front of goal bares resemblance to a flat-track bully of sorts, which isn’t helped by big-game displays. Since scoring in a 2-2 draw against Arsenal on December 5 last year, only two of his 16 goal contributions have come against the league’s top six sides.
Questions over his best position will continue to rumble with Rashford a more natural number nine, especially when comparing their goal record. Nonetheless, he’s netted three goals in United’s last two games and they have a plethora of important matches against winnable opposition to start 2020 across all competitions – renewed confidence in-front of goal is never a bad thing.
Elsewhere in the starting lineup, Andreas Pereira enjoyed another encouraging outing after doing enough on Thursday to retain his starting berth in the number ten role. It’s a position that best suits the Brazilian, who turns 24 next week.
Despite making his debut six months before Martial, it’s important to remember he’s yet to make 50 PL appearances for United (currently 37) and is benefiting from squad rotation at a time where Solskjaer needs players he can rely upon.
He’s now got an assist in successive games and although there are questions over his decision-making and long-term suitability at United, these productive displays will help.
#3 Tentative Clarets their own worst enemy
Burnley did the opposite of what was needed to earn a result against United on this occasion, playing right into their hands from the early exchanges. Allowing their visitors too much time and space in possession meant Solskjaer’s men were able to settle quickly and create multiple chances, which served to only give them extra impetus to find the breakthrough before half-time.
Once that was done, you could sense the game was over as a contest. Between the four-man backline of Williams-Maguire-Lindelof-Young, they only had to complete two tackles over the 90 minutes.
Dwight McNeil was the only Burnley player that completed more than one successful dribble over the 90 minutes (3 of 3 attempted), which again, speaks volumes. Ashley Westwood was busy in midfield but they didn’t truly have anyone other than McNeil determined to take the game to United – which was again reiterated by the inadequate service into Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes as part of Dyche’s 4-4-2 formation.
Jeff Hendrick struggled creatively while Jack Cork wasn’t much better, so the fact that fullback Phil Bardsley had their best chance of the evening – and was their best performer – says it all really.
Barnes and Wood combined for just 46 touches and one shot off-target throughout, being starved of service as United’s backline gladly cleared the ball whenever it arrived in semi-dangerous areas. Lindelof topped the charts with a game-high seven completed, while Maguire (4) and Williams (3) were also busy. Had they been more aggressive and fearless as Watford were last weekend, it could have been a completely different result.
#2 Rashford impressive again as United’s invaluable attacking force
Rashford’s importance at the heart of this transitional United side cannot be underestimated. Even when not at his best, the 22-year-old channels determination and guile to persist during times of adversity. It’s why he’s been trusted as their main man and equally, made an easy scapegoat when they do underperform and lose.
Operating on the left-hand side of their 4-2-3-1 formation as he did against Newcastle, he enjoyed a more productive showing here and netted his 16th goal of the campaign across all competitions late on too.
It was far from a vintage finish, though instead emphasised just how hard he works to combine well with teammates in this side. Daniel James did well to effortlessly breach the Burnley backline on their counter-attack, but there was still work to be done.
Rashford’s movement was key here: sprinting from his own box to the Burnley area in nine seconds flat, leaving three retreating players in his wake before having the composure to flick the ball around an onrushing Pope and slide home from close-range.
For context, he doubled their lead in stoppage-time. This blistering counter-attacking move was finished in the fifth minute of added time. Having hit the post minutes after forcing Pope into an important stop early in the first-half, he importantly didn’t relent.
Eventually, he earned his reward the hard way. Having completed six dribbles and being a nuisance throughout, he might’ve had a hat-trick – just like Martial – had fortune been in his favour.
#1 Top four remains all to play for
As previously mentioned, Tottenham’s surprise 2-2 draw away at Norwich means United are just one point behind Chelsea – although Frank Lampard’s side have a game in hand.
Should they fail to win against an unpredictable Arsenal side, it would make for an interesting start to the New Year, even with half the season still to play. They have lost five of their last seven Premier League games and January could prove a pivotal month for all the sides chasing a Champions League berth.
Aside from their surprise defeat by Watford last weekend, United’s last PL defeat was on November 2 – a 1-0 loss vs. Bournemouth. After that, they were unbeaten in six games.
The Blues face Arsenal, Leicester, United and Tottenham among others before returning to Champions League action against Bayern Munich on February 25. Who knows how the table will look by that stage of the campaign?
Tottenham still have multiple issues to iron out, so it’ll be interesting to see how Jose Mourinho deals with them over the coming months. Considering Spurs’ recent form and how questions are still being asked about whether they’ve really improved in north London, it’s fair to say that United hold a psychological edge in that regard.
Winning games like these allows Solskjaer breathing space to work with, especially having done so without a full-strength side to call upon. Paul Pogba (ankle) wasn’t involved on this occasion and has essentially been sidelined all season long. So while City are struggling, there’s renewed optimism in the blue half of Manchester to start 2020.