How Manchester United needed this victory. It derived from one of their games in hand and moves them to 31 points, four behind Arsenal in the final Champions League berth, and was as emphatic as any display so far under Ralf Rangnick.
This does not mean, however, that all is tickety-boo with their play. The win came against a Burnley side who, due to four matches being postponed because of Covid, last played on 12 December and whose sole league victory, over Brentford, came on 30 October. Still absent is an overriding structure that can allow United to govern a game. Under Rangnick, they remain a side of moments: tonight it was enough to claim the three points but this lack of continuity should trouble their caretaker manager, who pointed afterwards to shakiness without the ball.
Yet on an evening when a huge banner celebrating Sir Alex Ferguson’s 80th birthday on New Year’s Eve was unfurled in the Stretford End, Scott McTominay was in blistering form, scoring a superb opener, creating Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal and performing like a United midfielder should: as a force of nature. Can he do it week-in and out? Because this is the challenge facing the 25-year-old.
“I was struggling this morning to play with my right foot but I pulled through it, I am fine,” McTominay said. “We are all learning and adapting [under the manager]. We play for Man United, and we need to get results.”
Rangnick made six changes from Monday’s dire 1-1 at Newcastle – to freshen the side, he said – while Burnley’s covid travails claimed Josh Brownhill, Nick Pope, Jay Rodriguez and Kevin Long as its latest victims. Sean Dyche was also without the injured Ashley Barnes, Maxwel Cornet and Connor Roberts. This meant a first Premier League appearance since June 2020 for goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey and Aaron Lennon broke a three-month stretch without a start.
Anything less than a home victory would cause scrutiny of the Rangnick project, five matches in. But what the 63-year-old saw initially concerned him as United allowed Burnley to run along their left and, when Matthew Lowton crossed from the other flank, they were thankful Chris Wood’s header was wild.
Also off target was Ronaldo’s shot via a Luke Shaw through ball that saw the forward spoon over. But Ronaldo turned provider to open the scoring. Mason Greenwood cannoned the ball off a defender before pulling it back to Ronaldo whose touch was designed to allow him to let fly. Instead, McTominay was there to fire in, to Hennessey’s left, for a first United goal this season.
Joy mixed with relief followed. But the play was fractured, pell-mell. What United needed was control but Burnley were defiant. Dwight McNeil and Johann Gudmundsson were driving in from the flanks and causing Aaron Wan-Bissaka to make vital blocks. Shaw, though, was in resurgent form, one barnstorming run ending with his shot smacking the side-netting.
United soon scored again. Jadon Sancho veered in from the left and took aim but Ben Mee stuck out a toe and redirected the ball in for an own goal. The hosts had become rampant. McTominay scattered defenders in a run that finished with a clever ball to Ronaldo. His silky feet fashioned an effort but the shot was deflected. By 35 minutes it was 3-0, the excellent McTominay blazing a shot at Hennessey, who tipped the ball on to his left post, only for Ronaldo to tap in.
This should have been contest over. But Harry Maguire proved a liability, his passiveness allowing Lennon to run through the defence and unload past David de Gea and into the corner.
Dyche could use this as fuel for his interval chat. Burnley came out and tried feeding left-back Charlie Taylor along his corridor but Wan-Bissaka had his measure. Soon, the United right-back was running decoy, allowing Greenwood to serve the ball on to Ronaldo’s head, although his attempt was disappointing. A flowing sequence that featured another Shaw burst had Ronaldo dummying a pass, Cavani helping the ball on and Greenwood shooting. Hennessey repelled the effort.
This passage of play continued the pattern of the match. Burnley were existing off scraps, United were doing what they should: dominating an inferior, severely depleted opponent. Yet their play meandered, De Gea’s 70-yard hack that went straight out of play illustrative of this.
Leadership was required from Maguire or one of the de facto captains – Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani, McTominay or Shaw – to gee up the troops and get them moving in high gear again.
Instead, Lennon again drove forward, Eric Bailly having to usher the ball out for a corner. United broke from this, Greenwood relaying to Sancho who played the ball to Ronaldo. His pass went back to McTominay who warmed Hennessey’s fingers again, firing in a 20-yard shot that was pushed on to the bar.
With the score at 3-1 Burnley retained a sniff but this was dependent on them suddenly developing a killer edge. It was not to be, though James Tarkowski had an added-time chance for a consolation. While Raphaël Varane replaced the injured Bailly, there was scant alarm for a side who welcome Wolves on Monday. Again, only victory is enough.