Jonny Evans was crucial at both ends as Manchester United showed some willingness to suffer while stopping the rot. For now…
Manchester United’s problems were never going to be solved on a Saturday night in Burnley. But the Red Devils at least swerved cracked-badge territory with a stoic performance and a desperately needed victory.
Losing to Arsenal, Brighton and Burnley could all be forgiven, if not entirely excused, but a fourth consecutive defeat at Turf Moor to a newly-promoted side still looking for their first win of the season would have prompted a full-blown crisis around Old Trafford.
Mercifully for Erik ten Hag, his men showed the spirit and willingness to suffer that they have been accused of lacking during a wretched start to the season.
Ten Hag did his best to rouse United by selecting young legs and an old head in his XI. Hannibal Mejbri earned a chance just by getting after Brighton for 20 minutes a week ago, while Jonny Evans came into a defence even more ravaged now that it was before the 35-year-old was given his first United start since March 2015.
Hannibal, in Ten Hag’s words, was “perfect” playing in a central role off Rasmus Hojlund, while Evans was flawless in back four that gets more makeshift by the match.
Good news stories around United have been sparse but Evans thought he had written his own fairytale when he headed in Sergio Reguilon’s corner on 25 minutes. In keeping with the Red Devils’ recent narrative, however, Hojlund was spotted interfering with James Trafford from an offside position.
No matter, Evans created one instead at the end of a difficult half for United. Receiving possession just in the Burnley half, the centre-back caught Bruno Fernandes’ eye and found his right foot with a perfectly-flighted pass. Fernandes still had plenty to do as the ball came over his left shoulder but the captain’s timing was as precise as the pass to bury a volley across Trafford into the bottom corner.
That must have made for a more buoyant dressing room than it might have been at the break and their renewed spirit was a huge factor in protecting their advantage while Burnley claimed 65 per cent of the possession during a second half in which, of course, United lost Reguillon and Evans. Rio Ferdinand, on the sidelines as a pundit, was one tackle or twang from a return of his own.
That United ceded so much possession to Burnley would normally be used as a stick to beat Ten Hag and his players but it allowed the Red Devils to prove they haven’t ‘jacked it in’, as some of their players have been accused of this week. It has been a chastening fortnight on the pitch, and off it things have been little better, with suggestions of leaks and the other signs that these players have grown weary of yet another manager.
Perhaps they wanted to put on a performance for Ten Hag to ease the pressure on their boss. More likely, some were shamed into doing the dirty work and offering the minimum levels of graft required at United, or any other serious football club. Regardless, the Red Devils have given themselves a platform upon which to rebuild their season.
Some flaws were again present. Marcus Rashford still looks utterly bereft of confidence and his relationship with Hojlund requires serious work. Ten Hag didn’t help, continuing his streak of questionable tactical choices by keeping Rashford on the right for most of the second half and Fernandes on the left.
Ten Hag would probably answer by talking up Fernandes’ defensive contribution compared to Rashford, with the skipper trusted more to help Reguilon, who was ill before he was injured, then Victor Lindelof and, finally, Sofyan Amrabat who came off the bench to make his United debut as yet another emergency left-back.
It was significant too that the ball ended the 95 minutes in Andre Onana’s grasp at the end of a much-needed clean sheet for United. That, supplemented by a Bruno’s brilliance, allows United to park this recent crisis for now, but there will only ever be another one just around the corner unless Ten Hag can tease his players to maintain these levels of motivation and determination.