United punch through resilient Burnley to go top of the Premier League
Manchester United sit at the top of the Premier League table once again. Few would have thought it possible after the poor 1-0 loss to Arsenal only two months ago, yet here we are. Victory at Burnley has yielded the top spot to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men.
But the three points were not to be won easily.
While Sean Dyche’s side sit precariously above the relegation zone, opposition managers must always pay respect to the defensive capabilities of this Burnley team. A recent takeover may have the club looking upon a brighter future, but the success of previous years has been achieved through a thoroughly ingrained culture of solidity.
The severity of the task was not lost on Solskjaer, who named a ferociously strong lineup that cost United more than ten times what Burnley had paid to assemble their starting team.
Upon kick-off, the game delivered on all the difficulties that it could possibly have promised. Burnley were rigid in their defence and without many chances for either side, the referees took centre stage in their moderation of a match in which the pressure was palpable.
United had been limited to long-shots and blocked efforts in their attempts to break down the ten-man defence, so when Luke Shaw clattered into Johann Berg Gudmundsson to win the ball and initiate a lightning-quick counter-attack, hopes were high of a chance to catch out the Burnley defence.
The ball was shifted down the flank and into the feet of Edinson Cavani, and all Robbie Brady could do was scythe the Uruguayan down to prevent a certain goal. VAR began what turned out to be an extraordinarily lengthy review.
There were calls for red cards, first for Brady and then for Shaw, before the decision was ultimately made for a sole yellow card. It was given to the United man, with the additional Burnley free-kick seen to invalidate the passage of play that resulted in Brady’s otherwise certain dismissal.
Both sides felt harshly treated, but the United clamours were soon to multiply. Shaw, still heavily involved, delivered a lofted ball to the back post where Harry Maguire towered above Eric Pieters to loop an effort over Nick Pope.
Maguire had completely beaten his man, yet referee Kevin Friend judged that he had instead fouled Pieters – and worse, VAR barely even seemed to consider any possibility of an incorrect decision.
Playing through the frustration, Anthony Martial launched a fine curling effort towards the top corner, only to be matched marvellously by Pope. United had every right to feel aggrieved as they finished the first half goalless.
Half-time: Burnley 0 – 0 Manchester United
In years gone by United would have felt that this was simply not their game, and the frustration would have boiled over until the result soured.
Instead, this team kept their heads down and concentrated fully on grinding out a goal.
Cavani was presented with two half-chances, but on both occasions the Burnley crowd between him and the goal caused him to misjudge his efforts. Nevertheless, the pressure continued.
But there would be no breaking through this resolute defence. No fancy footwork would sneak through, and no counter-attack could be launched against a team that sat so far back.
Up step Paul Pogba. Having been the driving force in United’s midfield throughout, the Frenchman took matters into his own hands as only twenty minutes remained. Finding space on the edge of the box, a clipped ball from Marcus Rashford was volleyed powerfully through the block and into the net via a slight deflection.
A 𝘁𝗼𝗽 strike from @PaulPogba 🎯
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 13, 2021
Burnley finally began to commit men forward but their goal-shy forwards could only snatch at their chances, and as United’s forwards failed to capitalise on the newly-opened defence, nothing changed the result.
United passed the first test of the week. The most successful teams break through the toughest of opposition, but they must also achieve victory on the biggest stages of them all.
On Sunday, Anfield will play host to the fiercest rivalry of the Premier League. And the stakes have rarely been higher.
Full time: Burnley 0 – 1 Manchester United
Man of the Match: Paul Pogba