As he handed out dossiers at the pre-match press conference, Louis van Gaal looked like what he had once briefly been, a schoolteacher who would not brook backchat from his classroom. The accusation put tongue-in-cheek by Sam Allardyce, that Manchester United were a “long-ball team”, had clearly got to him.
It may seem strange for a club that are third in the Premier League and who won 3-1 here but the question is not whether United are a long or short-ball team but whether they are a good team.
For long periods in the first half a squad that had £150m lavished on it in the summer were outplayed by a Burnley side whose fans chanted “we only cost three quid”.
The game was only safe once Scott Arfield chopped down Angel di Maria and Robin van Persie, with the lights from the camera-phones illuminating the Stretford End, converted Manchester United’s first penalty of the season.
Burnley did what they have done too often this season. They played well and lost. It seemed at one stage that they would be this season’s Derby – relegated with a dozen points. Now they might be this season’s Blackpool – relegated to an ovation.
There were many surprises in this match, not least that Manchester United were leading at half-time and that Chris Smalling scored both their goals, especially as the defender was not even in Van Gaal’s starting line-up and had been on the field for precisely 22 seconds when his first effort struck the net.
He was replacing Phil Jones, who lasted five minutes before becoming the latest United injury, and the fact he had begun his career at Blackburn meant he was jeered off by those who had travelled across from Burnley. If Jones was angry, he did not have to wait too long for retribution as Radamel Falcao headed on a corner and his replacement did the rest.
That ought to have been the signal for Burnley to collapse. Their captain and midfield linchpin, Dean Marney, had suffered a cruciate ligament injury in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with West Bromwich Albion and without him you feared for their safety. Burnley were wearing a silver away kit that did not inspire confidence, making it look like they were playing in Bacofoil. Sometimes United made them look like Barcelona.
A club that had not won at Old Trafford since 1962 began playing astonishingly well. Michael Keane, a product of the Manchester United academy, almost scored with a close-range header and then a deep cross, delivered at pace by Kieran Trippier, was met with a brilliant diving header from Danny Ings. Two minutes after the interval, Smalling launched a kick at thin air from George Boyd’s cross and Ings somehow failed to bundle in what seemed a certain second.
There were times when United looked utterly unable to come to terms with the speed and power of Burnley’s play. David de Gea saved well from Michael Kightly, Ashley Barnes’s shot crashed into the adverts at the Stretford End and United required any kind of ball, long or short, to clear their lines.
Daley Blind had already been forced off temporarily with concussion following a collision with Jonny Evans and, five minutes before the interval, the young Dutchman was withdrawn completely.
Nevertheless, Burnley have been hobbled by an absolute inability to defend something as routine as a corner kick. Both West Brom’s goals came from corners and Old Trafford would see two more.
A short corner from Wayne Rooney was played back by Di Maria and the United captain’s deep cross was met firmly by another Smalling header. Manchester United may be a long-ball team or a short-ball team but last night they were a very good set-piece team.
Manchester United: De Gea, McNair, Jones, Evans, Rojo, Blind, Di Maria, Januzaj, Rooney, van Persie, Falcao.
Subs: Smalling (Jones, 5), Herrera (Blind, 39), Wilson (Falcao, 74).
Burnley: Heaton, Trippier, Keane, Shackell, Mee, Boyd, Arfield, Jones, Kightly, Barnes, Ings.
Subs: Vokes (Kightly, 86), Jutkiewicz (Barnes, 90).
Man of the match Kightly.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee K Friend (Bristol).
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