Manchester United closed out their 2020 with a win over Burnley which was much more comfortable and routine than might have been predicted based on what we’ve seen over the last calendar year.
Then again, if someone had told you on January 1st that the last goal of the year would be scored by Cristiano Ronaldo in a team coached by Ralf Rangnick, you might well have questioned their sanity.
Perhaps only the lashing rain provided any real continuity and familiarity for the United fans, not sure of what they would see in a game where the new manager rang the changes. Six of them, after complaints about the draw against Newcastle.
Eric Bailly, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Luke Shaw and Nemanja Matic were among the recalled, with Rangnick going for a flat 4-4-2 that at times looked like a 4-2-4 due to the suspension of Bruno Fernandes.
It took a while to settle. It has to be said that the forwards led by example – Cavani will always press, and did, and Cristiano Ronaldo also made sure that the defenders and goalkeeper were always given something to think about. But it meant a lot for the midfield of Matic and McTominay and on occasion Matic would drift into the middle, giving McTominay a headache of where he had to position himself.
United, though, were able to make good of the makeshift side, striking moments of quality when and were it mattered. Greenwood and Ronaldo were involved in the build up for McTominay to strike an opportunistic effort from the edge of the box. Fortune favoured the brave – and the hosts could settle into a rhythm, knowing their visitors now had to be more adventurous.
And Sean Dyche’s men caused issues. There were a couple of distinctly worrying moments as Chris Wood, one of the league’s most immobile forwards, seemed to have the legs of Harry Maguire, but United were able to get a second goal. Jadon Sancho was looking lively, and went on a mazy dribble that cut into the box. He slid a shot across goal and it appeared to take the slightest touch from the toe of Ben Lee as it rolled into the corner of the net.
There was more liberation in United’s play, and McTominay was bold enough to have another effort from distance – the goalkeeper did well to tip it on to the post, but the ball rebounded very kindly for Ronaldo to make it 3-0 before half-time.
There was still time in the first period for Aaron Lennon to capitalise first on a Bailly heavy touch and then on Maguire’s refusal to challenge, scoring from the edge of the box.
3-1 it was at the break – and that’s how it remained at full-time; the second half a non-event though at times it did appear as though the players were being conservational on instruction. Could they control a game? It wasn’t exactly fluid, and it most certainly wasn’t always enjoyable to watch, but they saw the game out and took any sting out of any time where Burnley thought they might get into the game.
There were some outstanding performances – Greenwood and McTominay were in fine form, while Cavani appeared to be saying goodbye with another typically energetic display (the likes of which will be missed, his short-term contribution at United not quite having the desired influence on some of the club’s other more static forwards).
Meanwhile, the full-backs put in a decent shift, nothing outstanding, but enough to show that it’s really much of a muchness in that area.
No victory can be taken for granted – United won 21 of 41 in the league in 2020, with this one putting them four points behind Arsenal with a game in hand.
Burnley, meanwhile, are in the highest relegation zone, so this routine win was welcome and was delivered with the comfort that it should have been. It’s just that we haven’t seen it so often this year. So it’s important not to get carried away with it, especially considering the modest readjustment of the club’s ambition for this season, which is once again to try and get in the top four. In January.
Without wanting to be a downer after a win, the performance still seemed to show there is a long way to go until United can be confident that they click and reach another level. For now, though, it served its purpose.
Selection / Tactics
Enforced by the suspension of Fernandes, Rangnick went with a pretty ambition high-pushing 4-4-2, which, from dead balls in the first half, had Greenwood and Sancho pushing as high as the centre-forwards.
It’s a system that still could theoretically be played with Fernandes in the team as he often serves as a second forward in those situations; the issue being that in normal play, he drops deeper, so United lack the space a selfless runner like Cavani creates.
It’s food for thought for Rangnick who dropped that narrow 2-2-2 shape to try something where you put the square pegs in the square holes and it suggests the German is open to trying out new things when the opportunity arises. In fact, you might say the change in shape was influential in the early pressure that won the goals. It’s just whether or not we’ll see it against Wolves that is the issue.
De Gea 6