Manchester United brought an end to the Premier League’s 2021 fixtures in impressive fashion as Scott McTominay carried Ralf Rangnick’s side to a 3-1 win at home to Burnley.
Scoring one, creating another and dominating the midfield battle, McTominay’s dynamism was the dividing line in a contest rather more even than the scoreline might suggest. Whilst there were plenty in red who seemed to be having their teething problems with Rangnick’s 4-4-2, McTominay knitted it all together quite excellently, carrying the Red Devils to a first win in 19 COVID-disrupted days.
It has hardly been a year of great distinction by Old Trafford’s standards. No trophies, another change of coach and the tearing up of tactical plans and plenty of major signings who have not yet lived up to their fees. Still, as 2022 looms, United are at least in the mix to achieve their bare minimum expectations; four points off Arsenal in fourth with a game in hand and still with that propensity for flattering results.
A 3-1 victory falls into that category, certainly based on the first half in which they accrued it. It was a fair reflection on McTominay’s excellence, however. With Nemanja Matic shielding the defense, the Scotland international was free to rampage high and low in pursuit of the ball. If it was his contributions in front of goal that caught the eye, the little things were no less critical to the hosts’ success. He would mark aerial threat Chris Wood off set pieces and goal kicks, cutting off a key outball for Burnley. No player bettered his four ball recoveries in the first half.
Often a player defined by his work rate or his physicality, he showed no little technical excellence. When Cristiano Ronaldo took a heavy touch on the box he seized on the moment; a firmly struck low drive curling into Wayne Hennessey’s bottom corner.
It was a curious “assist” from Ronaldo, a rare heavy touch that instead sat up perfectly for his teammate. McTominay repaid the favor more than once. First he sped through midfield, holding on until just the right moment to slip a through ball into his No. 7’s feet. Not for the first time Thursday, he was thumping the air in frustration, the ball having got caught under his feet before he could get a convincing shot away.
McTominay would have to make it easier for him then. That he did, another well placed shot from outside the box that proved just too much for Hennessey, who could only tip it onto the post. Naturally, Ronaldo was on hand for the rebound, a nonchalant swipe from the outside of his right boot bringing with it the 47th goal of the calendar year for the great man. Even when he underwhelms, Ronaldo seems to find a way to score.
At that stage, United were already two up, Luke Shaw and Jadon Sancho combining, a quick dart on the latter’s right foot and an effort struck toward the far post. Ben Mee stuck out a despairing boot, one that Premier League officials deemed to be the decisive touch. One would suspect that both parties would be rather happier if that goal were awarded to Sancho, an impressive if infrequent contributor to this contest.
Riddled by COVID-19 and injuries, Burnley might have been entitled to bunker down and stem the bleeding for the remaining 55 minutes. But they had been far too good to be three goals down in the first place, their wingers offering plenty of difficulties for Harry Maguire and company. Though it had been Eric Bailly who made the initial mistake that allowed Aaron Lennon to claim the ball his senior partner in central defense only exacerbated the situation, backing further and further off while leaving open an angle to strike at the far post.
Lennon found the spot with pinpoint accuracy, not the firmest of strikes but one that rolled just far enough beyond David de Gea’s reach. Having fought their way back into the contest, Burnley hardly burst out of the traps in the second half, Mee flicking a header over at the back post moments after Raphael Varane replaced the injured Eric Bailly, who will be hoping he will still be able to join up with the Ivory Coast for the Africa Cup of Nations.
Burnley’s bombardment of the United box never quite arrived though; Matej Vydra could have done more with a late cross from Matt Lowton, Erik Pieters airballed a shot on his weaker right foot and James Tarkowski outjumped Maguire to head straight at De Gea as time ran out. Yet by then, not even Sean Dyche’s side seemed to believe they could get something from this match, one where they had looked so dangerous for so long. Just two adrift from safety with a game in hand, they will know there are more important games to come.
The same is no less true for United. A favorable fixture list lies ahead of Rangnick, still unbeaten in his interim job, a chance for them to get back into the top-four race. It was not where they would have wanted to be at the start of a new year; they will have to make the best of it.