Having lost three times in five matches to register their worst start to a Premier League season, Manchester United travelled to Burnley on Saturday desperate for a victory to kickstart their campaign.
They achieved the win they needed, but it was far from straightforward against a team yet to win a match since returning to the top flight.
Bruno Fernandes’ outstanding goal — reminiscent of Robin van Persie’s famous volley for United against Aston Villa in 2013 — proved enough for Erik ten Hag’s side and lifts them from 13th to eighth in the table.
Dan Sheldon and Ahmed Walid answer three key questions from United’s 1-0 victory at Turf Moor.
Was this a win to suggest United are better than recent results suggest?
Context is required. Going into this match, United had lost games against Arsenal, Brighton and Bayern Munich. While those three fixtures would be a test for any team, the most disappointing aspect from Ten Hag’s perspective was the below-par performances.
You can forgive individual errors, but you can’t turn the other way if you feel — as Ten Hag did — that the players are not putting a shift in. The Dutchman had started to question the determination of his team.
So to come to Burnley, a side who are yet to win since their return to the Premier League, and end a run of three defeats in a row in all competitions was crucial.
At times, especially during the first half, United were too slow when playing out from the back. Given they looked ponderous in those areas at times, it was somewhat ironic that Fernandes’ goal on the cusp of half-time came from Jonny Evans playing a piercing long diagonal pass into the area, which was exquisitely volleyed past James Trafford by the United captain.
Once again, United were far from their best and having just 38 per cent possession at Turf Moor says much about where they are at the moment. But this was another patchwork XI due to the number of injuries in Ten Hag’s squad — nobody would have expected Evans and Victor Lindelof to be starting a Premier League match together this season. It was Evans’ first start for the club since 2015 and was forced upon the manager by injuries to Lisandro Martinez and Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane not being fully fit.
It was far from vintage United, but their performance was an improvement on what they have shown in recent weeks.
WHAT A FINISH FROM BRUNO FERNANDES! 🤩
Manchester United take the lead against Burnley thanks to a brilliant assist from Jonny Evans and an even better finish from Bruno! pic.twitter.com/qMdAxzZGwO
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) September 23, 2023
How did United keep a rare clean sheet?
After conceding 14 goals in their past five games, United desperately needed a clean sheet. The pre-game news of Martinez missing the match and Evans being included in the starting line-up did not appear to bode well.
Ten Hag’s side had their backs to the wall at times, but a mix of fortune, defending their penalty area well and improvement in terms of winning the ball in midfield saw them over the line.
The scoreline could have been different if Zeki Amdouni’s shot in the first half was a couple of metres to the left and United were lucky when Sander Berge missed a free header from a corner in the last 10 minutes. But it’s important to also point out Evans and Lindelof’s commanding display in United’s own box and when they were forced to move out of the 18-yard area when Amdouni dropped deeper. In addition to that, Casemiro’s performance was easily his best this season, showing a glimpse of what he offered United off the ball in 2022-23.
United’s list of unavailable players only needs a couple more to make a side of their own, but the real elephant in the room is the side’s poor game when in possession. The lack of clear ideas and inability to control the flow of the game meant United had to endure long spells of pressure – there was one point, around the 70-minute mark, when over the previous five minutes Burnley had enjoyed 90 per cent possession. That problem adds more pressure on their defensive line and goalkeeper.
United fans will be hoping this issue will be solved in their next run of games with Sofyan Amrabat featuring in midfield and Mason Mount returning from injury.
Will this ease what had been a growing sense of a looming crisis for United?
Absolutely. It is far too early in the season for it to have been a must-win match, but it was imperative they did not lose a fourth game in a row. Keeping their first clean sheet since the win over Wolves on the opening day of the campaign was an added bonus.
The discourse around United over the past couple of weeks has, on the whole, been of a club walking from one crisis to another — both on and off the pitch.
It is difficult to remember a time this season, even though it is only seven games old, when Ten Hag hasn’t been asked difficult questions, whether it is about his decision to make Jadon Sancho train on his own, or if his agent, Kees Vos, is too heavily involved at the club.
Back-to-back games against Crystal Palace – one in the Carabao Cup, one in the Premier League — should be viewed as an opportunity for the manager and his United squad to build on their win over Burnley and put a torrid few weeks behind them.
While uncertainty over the Glazers’ ownership of United continues to loom large and other off-pitch issues haven’t gone away, beating Burnley at least halts the negativity regarding performances on the pitch.
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(Top photo: Lewis Storey/Getty Images)