Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team have struggled to put away the Premier League’s lesser lights and with the transfer window open changes could be afoot
Manchester United will bring a mixture of confidence and trepidation to Turf Moor after their Boxing Day victory against Newcastle United. They will be relieved to have finally put one of the league’s most mediocre teams to the sword.
Misfires against the teams lower down have proven to be the undoing of United’s faltering campaign in the Premier League so far. They are yet to consistently prove themselves in front of deep defences focused on shut outs and have been shown to lack creativity, intelligence, patience and poise.
The game against Newcastle showed the players and the fans – as did the brief flash of excitement at Carrow Road against Norwich – that hitting the opposition down the wings can be effective if the delivery and technique are up to scratch.
Andreas Pereira’s layoff in the box for Anthony Martial and Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s cross for Marcus Rashford are two examples of attacking methods of that United have struggled to master.
Liverpool, by contrast, are constantly pressing through the flanks and have in Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, three technically accomplished players to work openings in tight spaces.
United’s players should be concerned that they can match the teams at the top end but struggle against the also-rans. If they can’t beat Burnley, then the problems – as Jesse Lingard has suggested – could very well be on the psychological side.
This club has acquitted itself well against the very best sides in the league and occasionally in Europe since the days of Louis van Gaal’s tenure. But they cannot to raise their game week in, week out, as the Premier League now requires.
There are plenty of squads worse than United’s in terms of ability, but they don’t lack focus in the same way as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s players. Burnley – on paper – are an entirely surmountable obstacle, but United’s mentality problems could see them become an impossibly obdurate opponent.
This task is made harder by the almost certain absence of Scott McTominay from the side. As an example to the rest of the squad, McTominay’s desire to make the very best of himself – despite some technical shortcomings – makes it plain to those around him that effort is as essential a quality as skill.
If it is yet again made clear that the players are their own worst enemies, then Solskjaer has little choice. The clearout that began in the summer should continue in January.
Luke Shaw has not kicked on despite an extended run in the team following injury. Nemanja Matic and Andreas Pereira do not have the required pace through midfield. Martial, Jesse Lingard and Victor Lindelof are inconsistent. That is perhaps the clearest example of what needs be stamped out if the club are to improve meaningfully.
There are players who have been linked with moves inbound. Jadon Sancho appears to have put off-field issues to one side and is playing well for Borussia Dortmund.
Erling Braut Haaland has the physique of a man even at the age of 19 and is ruthless in front of goal.
Christian Eriksen remains a decisive matchwinner.
All may ultimately go elsewhere, but the fact they are targets for the Old Trafford transfer committee shows that the penny has dropped somewhere: players need to excel before there is even a chance of succeeding at United.
Nevertheless, there are reasons for optimism. Paul Pogba is back and appears to have recommitted himself to playing as he did at the very start of the season. A determined Pogba has the potential to be the very best midfielder in the Premier League, if not Europe. His presence should make light of McTominay’s absence if the French international is able to deliver something like his best against Burnley; the concern is that there is almost no guarantee of it.
Most promising though, is Mason Greenwood, now being openly compared to Robin van Persie. The youth product demonstrated yet again on Boxing Day why calls for him to now start regularly are entirely justified.
It is not just Martial blowing hot and cold that makes him the best option, but the nerveless certainty with which he approaches the goal. The strike to beat Martin Dubravka was not guided artfully into the top corner – although there is no suggestion that is beyond Greenwood – it was simply dispatched at such a pace that it didn’t matter where it was headed, as long as it was on target. A target man and focal point is one thing, a dead-eyed assassin is altogether far more exciting.
Burnley should be an easy victory for United. It will keep them in touch of the Champions League spots if they succeed, but failure may shunt them down to mid-table. If it isn’t won, then it could not only bring down the curtain on Manchester United’s 2019 but on the careers of some of their underperforming players.