“Glory, glory Man United,” blared out of the PA system as Louis van Gaal’s players trudged off the pitch at half-time. Those with a sense of humour in Old Trafford would have been forgiven for breaking out into wry smiles. ‘Glory’ feels a world away right now. “Frustration, frustration Man United” doesn’t scan quite so well.
The idea is that nobody questions you when you’re winning, but the scrutiny over the performances of Van Gaal’s Manchester United side will continue. Burnley, a club with two Premier League away victories in their history, left Old Trafford pointless, but were the better side for extended periods of the match. United were fortunate to find the unlikeliest of goalscoring heroes in Chris Smalling. He is United’s joint top scorer in 2015.
Van Gaal may have reacted to claims from Sam Allardyce that his side were a ‘long-ball team’, but the inescapable reality is that the Dutchman is right to be questioned, whether by other managers, the media or supporters. This is a squad with a quality of individuals bettered only by Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea – by that reckoning their level of under-performance is higher than any other side. That they sit third is a damning indictment of the inconsistency of their top-four rivals.
Allardyce chose to focus on the perceived direct nature of United’s passing simply because it fitted his own agenda, but there are a number of alternate questions he could have raised. Why do you never start Ander Herrera? Why does Angel Di Maria look like a mid-table plodder? Why does every set-piece cause panic in United’s penalty area? Why oh why oh why is Wayne Rooney still in midfield? Does Van Gaal have pre-prepared dossiers for these issues too? Think of the poor press officer.
These are questions that will only increase in volume and relevance after another desperate performance, a display that epitomised a season; each passing match just seems to tighten the shackles rather than releasing them.
United won the match, and that is where the positives pretty much end. Burnley should have scored at least two more than their one first-half goal, Danny Ings’ diving header from a wonderful Kieran Trippier cross. United eventually made them pay.
Having taken the lead after six minutes through early substitute Smalling, the goal did anything but settle United nerves. Jonny Evans continued his transformation into one of the Premier League’s most uneasy defenders, whilst Rooney continued his bizarre secondment in midfield. The first half ended with the away fans ‘ole’-ing every Burnley pass. Burnley. At Old Trafford. It would not be melodramatic to state that the first half was worse than anything under David Moyes, given the quality of player on show.
Rooney’s positioning is to accommodate both Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao, but the only shot either striker had was Van Persie’s penalty. Falcao again looked blunt and lethargic, touching the ball fewer times than any other starter (other than the injured Phil Jones). His header across the penalty area assisted Smalling’s opener, but it’s a thin silver lining to dark, grey cloud. Surely United can’t be considering paying £40m to make this deal permanent?
Even when Rooney’s role was changed, it was to move him even further towards his own goal, after Daley Blind was removed through injury. We’ll know this is an elaborate practical joke when Rooney is finally picked as part of a three-man central defence and Van Gaal flicks Vs at the crowd. Rooney is still to have a shot on target in 2015. If he re-announced his intention to leave Old Trafford, you couldn’t really blame him.
The form of Di Maria remains a significant concern. The Argentinean looks horribly constrained, like a caged canary too sad to sing. He gave the ball away with almost 30% of his passes, lost possession 28 times and created just one chance. It’s now six chances created in 474 Premier League minutes for Di Maria, United’s fallen Angel.
It was not until after United scored their third goal that they began to play expansively, adding an undeserved varnish to the game. By then Burnley had lost faith and energy; their chance had come and passed. Sean Dyche will take little pleasure from defeat, but must take some solace from the performance.
The same cannot be same of Van Gaal. “It was not good,” he said after the match. “We were lucky to be ahead at half-time. It was a little bit better in the second half. The fans were whistling at half-time, that’s the first time I have heard that. We lost every ball. We were not professional. They played it on the floor in the first half and we didn’t.”
Sometimes it feels as if the result is not king. Three points gained by United, but more points raised by another ineffectual performance.