Manchester United 3-1 Burnley: McTominay, Ronaldo and a Mee own goal put the game out of reach before Lennon’s reply
After something of a glum Christmas, characterised by Covid outbreaks and that dismal showing at St James’ Park, Ralf Rangnick can at least celebrate the new year with three points and a good win. Three goals in the opening 35 minutes sent Manchester United on their way to the biggest and best win of Rangnick’s interim spell so far, as relegation-threatened Burnley were swatted aside at Old Trafford.
An early breakthrough by the excellent Scott McTominay was followed by a Ben Mee own goal and customary Cristiano Ronaldo strike before the interval. Aaron Lennon pulled one back in reply but it proved to be a mere consolation. Victory allowed United to avoid the ignominy of ending a calendar year outside the top six for the first time since 1989. Small steps, granted, but they ones that need to be made.
While United are unbeaten in eight since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s departure, Burnley are on a more unwelcome streak and will enter 2022 still waiting for their second league win of the season. They have games in hand after four recent postponements and this was a spirited showing for their first outing in nearly three weeks but you expect that Sean Dyche would rather have points on the board.
Rangnick rang the changes in response to the disappointing 1-1 draw away to Newcastle, making six in total and replacing three of the back four. Edinson Cavani, Jadon Sancho and Luke Shaw were among those to return. Burnley meanwhile lost four players to positive tests, with goalkeeper Nick Pope’s absence the most significant. Wayne Hennessey made his league debut in Pope’s place.
A banner was stretched across the Stretford End before kick-off to celebrate Sir Alex Ferguson, 80-years-old this New Year’s Eve, and it was not the only tribute on display. Rangnick also paid homage to his predecessor by lining United up in a system more akin to 4-4-2 than anything else, with wingers Sancho and Mason Greenwood taking up slightly more reserved roles than in the 4-2-2-2 we have come to expect of late.
It was a subtle switch but it produced an open start. Chris Wood and Cristiano Ronaldo had missed presentable chances at each end before the much-maligned McTominay showed them how to finish, pouncing on a heavy Ronaldo touch to drill a low and hard shot past Hennessey from the edge of the box. It was United’s first goal in the opening quarter of an hour of a Premier League game all season.
And soon, for the first time under Rangnick’s management, they would score a second. Sancho had flitted in and out of proceedings before picking up the ball and running at Burnley’s defence, turning inside James Tarkowski, then rolling an effort inside the far post. It would have been his first Old Trafford goal and a much-needed one, if the decisive touch to divert it on target had not come off Mee.
Whether it was an own goal or not, United were in the ascendancy. That was down in no small part to an assertive midfield display by McTominay, who was playing with greater freedom and influence alongside a true holding midfielder in Nemanja Matic. A third goal followed from another McTominay shot, only this time Hennessey pushed it against the post at full stretch. The rebound fell kindly for Ronaldo, who tapped into an unguarded net.
United were good for their lead, though the three-goal margin did not reflect a certain haphazard quality to their defending, demonstrated before the goal when Wood failed to make the most of Harry Maguire misjudging a long ball. Eric Bailly was then at fault, as his loose touch played the ball straight into the feet of Lennon. While Maguire backpedalled, the 34-year-old winger made his way forward and pulled a shot inside the far post that trickled past David de Gea’s helpless hand.
Rangnick has stressed upon the importance of clean sheets, prioritising them above all else. United have now only kept one in their past 14 league games at Old Trafford, though their interim manager will be pleased that Lennon’s consolation did not spark a revival. Quite the opposite. A bitty, attritional second half was short on highlights, with one firm Hennessey save of a Greenwood shot and a couple more sighters by McTominay. United were comfortable and in control. That is a faint sign of progress and something for Rangnick to build on.