Premier League 2018/19: Five things we learned from Burnley vs Manchester United
As the ‘Pink Devils’ took to the field at Turf Moor on Sunday, the world was baying for another implosion. There was something in the air, a plane to be exact. It was accompanied with clever of the following words, 'ED WOODWARD: A SPECIALIST IN FAILURE' in black and red. Obviously, this was not a first as we had seen a 'Wrong One - Moyes Out' banner already in 2014. But this was a resounding indictment of the direction that Manchester United seems to flying in and possibly a portentous crash.
United were coming off the back of a hiding in their own den and with their worst start in the Premier League era. Pundits and journalists alike were predicting a tough test against Burnley side which showed grit and gumption against Olympiakos midweek. Some went to the extent of prematurely pronouncing an easy win for the home side. It was anything but.
A 2-0 victory for United was not a true reflection of the controlled dominance distilled by Mourinho’s team. Apart from the reckless red card for Rashford who fell for the provocation, wiles and kung-fu of Phil Bardsley, it was a vintage away performance. Here are five things we learned from the match.
Redemption of Luke Shaw
After almost three years in the doldrums with continual injury setbacks, confidence issues and public ridicule, Shaw has turned his fortunes around. Back in the national squad, the leftback has had a remarkable resurgence. At Turf Moor, he was constantly bombing up and down the left flank.
Given the way United are playing, full backs are the ones in space and when Shaw gets on his bike, there is seemingly no stopping him. He had an almost flawless display save an ill-advised lunge on Lennon while tracking back. But that is simian sectors. Overall, he was resolute and unflinching in defence and heavily contributed in attack. If Luke can stay clear of injuries, this could very well be the ‘year of Shaw’.
Defensive screen of Matic and Fellaini
Mourinho had the perfect plan for Burnley’s aerial bombardment. Marouane Fellaini was deployed within arm’s length of Lindelof who was targeted by burly Burnley striker Chris Woods. Matic formed a dual axis with the Belgian giant and it worked like a charmed defensive blanket for the United rear guard.
The Old Trafford outfit did not concede any chances from open play and only ceded some ground from setplays, that too after going down to 10 men and the harrakiri following the double whammy of a penalty miss and red card. The defensive duo worked so well that the Burnley crowd did not have anything to shout about until Pogba’s penalty gaffe.
Depending on the opposition’s strength, this could be a recurring feature in future games with healthy rotation of playing spots between Matic, Fellaini, Fred, Herrera and McTominay (Perreira looks to be out of favor after Brighton debacle).
The added benefit of Matic-Fellaini defensive pivot was the unshackling of Pogba. Particularly, in the second half when Burnley were chasing the game, Paul came into his own. Even after his meek penalty was dismissed by Joe Hat, he did not go into his shell, something he is prone to. He should have had a couple of assists if not for the profligacy of Lukaku and heroics of Hart.
The freedom Pogba enjoyed had another facet to it. He was able to come deep when Matic went forward and ping those ‘Sat-Nav’ like long range passes ala Rooney and Scholes . He has that in his locker but sometimes shelves them when he is worried about losing the ball cheaply. With the release of defensive pensiveness due to the abovementioned defensive screen, Pogba can thrive in this all-rampaging and free roaming role. Consistency, though, has been his anathema in the United Red. Maybe United Pink is what he needs to unleash his colorful best.
Although he was not at his ruthless best, Romelu Lukaku had a beast of a performance. He ran literally into the ground, particularly after the Rashford red card. He got his goals in the first half and missed a few chances to add to his double in the second. In all honestly, he could have had 5 goals but for Joe Hart’s excellence. He should have had a penalty as he was brought down by Ben Mee when clean through on an open and gaping goal.
Lukaku worked brilliantly with Pogba in the second half, to counter-intuitively make Burnley chase United’s coattails even with a man advantage. Already at 3 goals for the season, United will be hoping he can push on now to greater things and better goal return.
Amorphous and fluid front 4
United had a flat back four with aggressive full backs, two defensive midfielders, rotating three ahead of them and Lukaku as the centre-point of attack. Actually, the front four of Lingard, Sanchez, Pogba and Lukaku were constantly moving between the lines and creating angles with their movement. They looked a well drilled team with different patterns of attack and possession play. Obviously, Fellaini and Matic were instrumental in their intelligent circulation of the ball but it was sharp interplay and manipulation of spaces by the fab four that opened up Burnley’s defensive knot, time and again.
Intriguingly, Lukaku stressed a similar point, in his postmatch interview, about the team working on such different plays and attacking strategy in training over the last month or so. We saw certain signs in the first half performance against Tottenham last Monday but the second half capitulation grabbed the headlines and captured all the mindspace post that loss. Maybe this is a start of a more expansive yet controlled form of play that the fans can relish at Old Trafford this season.
Another striking development was an air of ease on Mourinho’s face, even before the goal. He looked like a man with a plan and strutted with more assurance on the touchline. I guess that should not be a surprise coming from someone who can boast about being one of the greatest mangers and be right about it!
A swallow does not make a summer and this has been a particularly nightmarish summer for the Red Devils. A victory against Burnley does not change the Kafkaesque gloom and doom into the magical possibilities of Rowling’s Potter –sphere. There are still many issues to address and grievances to redress. But a tough away win and a two-week period to get over the early season troubles is a good way to start the healing process.