In the absence of supporters, Manchester United had the Scottish growl of Darren Fletcher to provide their away-day soundtrack at Burnley. Paul Pogba’s volley brought the United coach to his feet and his voice reverberated around a stand usually housed by Burnley denizens.
Fletcher was a midfielder of limited talent but grabbed games – and sometimes opponents – by the lapels and for the second league fixture running Pogba was more influential for United than Bruno Fernandes.
It was about time a teammate alleviated the burden on the fatigued Fernandes and Pogba is the closest to a mid-season talisman United are going to get. He is approaching the final chapter of his United career and the ending could yet be happy.
United are maximising Pogba’s talent and his form is improving as the season segues into its second half. At kick-off, Pogba’s selection was possibly a giveaway he would be reduced to a substitute at Liverpool on Sunday, but not on this evidence. United have to accommodate Pogba when he conducts attacks with such virtuosity.
Fletcher never played with Pogba but his big-game prowess was comparable with Mark Hughes and he is an erudite coach to coax such performances out of Pogba, whose parting gift could yet be a first title in eight years.
United are back on their perch for the first time in January since 2013 and their followers will not need reminding of the conclusion to that campaign. They will travel to Liverpool three points clear of their adversaries almost a year to the day since their last meeting at Anfield. United trailed by 27 points at kick-off that day and 30 points at full-time.
The manner of their gritty win in Lancashire will fuel belief more than had they run riot. The defining moments of championship-winning seasons are the laboured wins and against the artisans of Burnley United were not just reliant on the aesthetic Pogba. Harry Maguire and Eric Bailly were watertight and David de Gea celebrated Johann Gudmundsson’s late looper.
Burnley is never a cakewalk for United and Tommy Docherty is the last manager to have presided over a domestic double against them in 1975-76. Burnley have replaced Stoke as the fabled ‘cold Tuesday night’ gauge of a top-tier team’s mettle and are as rumbustious as Joe Kinnear’s Wimbledon warmongers of the 90s. United remain unbeaten at Burnley since their Premier League introduction on that balmy August night in 2009.
Pogba’s deflected winner ensured the game was remembered for the football. “Load of f—–g nonsense,” Solskjaer bellowed. The Video Assistant Referee was as shambolic as it was dramatic. There were six minutes between Luke Shaw’s robust tackle and the on-pitch referee Kevin Friend concluding it was a free-kick he originally overlooked. To general disbelief, Shaw was not expelled for his reviewed transgression.
It descended into a slugfest from the first kick – of a player, as much as the ball, constantly airborne, with United partially complicit in their selections of physical figureheads. Fletcher had a bird’s eye view, sat with the United analysts in the Jimmy Hargreaves Stand, and might have expected to fetch the ball from some clearances. “Oh my days, man!” Fletcher despaired after Shaw was sent tumbling.
Nick Pope, a serial time-waster on his appearances at Old Trafford, stirred the pot, demanding a ‘f—–g red card’ for Shaw amid outcry over a dangerous tackle by Robbie Brady on Edinson Cavani that so outraged Maguire he stormed to the opposite end. Maguire was outraged again when his headed goal was disallowed for a dubious offence and he complained again to the fraught Friend at half-time.
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The VAR deemed Brady’s tackle to be a red card but, because Shaw’s challenge occurred seconds earlier in the same passage and was reviewed, Friend determined it was a foul and a free-kick, quashing Brady’s booking. Are you keeping up? Solskjaer and Sean Dyche had a word on their walk across the turf back to the dressing rooms, Dyche remembering his media training to conceal his mouth.
Burnley’s physicality is matched by their fitness and their pressing forced errors from Fernandes and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, while Pope was the orchestra’s vocalist and more convincing with his hollering than the vocal David de Gea. Maguire constantly cajoled his teammates and these behind-closed-doors contests fuel appreciation for his vocal leadership.
Jose Mourinho lauded Marouane Fellaini for his shielding of the United back four at Turf Moor in 2018 and Solskjaer took a leaf from his book with the inclusion of beanpole midfielders Pogba and Nemanja Matic, and Bailly, the most suitable supplement for Maguire against Burnley’s bruise brothers of Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes. Cavani milked a tame Mee forearm and Tarkowski tested his temper, prompting a conversation with the referee that Spanish-speaker Pogba translated. Pogba needn’t ask Cavani if he fancied it. He did.
“Come on, Rashy! Come on!” De Gea roared. The last time he yelled those instructions Rashford forced an added-time winner against Wolves yet past the hour mark – usually Solskjaer’s favoured time for the first substitution – Rashford was the prime candidate to be replaced.
“Take him on,” Maguire instructed. Rashford hit the first man again. Then he found Pogba and Fletcher was on his feet.