Sun. Jan 24th, 2021

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Manchester United are unrecognisable from team that lost to Burnley last January

7 min read

Most of Old Trafford had emptied but those who stuck it out until the bitter end stayed only to boo and jeer.

The mood was mutinous, not only because of the anti-Glazer protests that had been planned but because Manchester United had just lost at home to Burnley for the first time since 1962.

It was a thoroughly miserable afternoon for a beleaguered United team and it looked like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s brief and disappointing reign as manager was nearing its end.

Manchester United's players look thoroughly dejected as they are beaten 2-0 at home by Burnley on January 22, 2020. They were booed off the field by angry fans

Manchester United’s players look thoroughly dejected as they are beaten 2-0 at home by Burnley on January 22, 2020. They were booed off the field by angry fans 

Those fans at Old Trafford who didn't leave early stayed behind to jeer the players off

Those fans at Old Trafford who didn’t leave early stayed behind to jeer the players off

The situation looked increasingly bleak for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with United some 30 points behind rivals and champions-elect Liverpool at that time

The situation looked increasingly bleak for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with United some 30 points behind rivals and champions-elect Liverpool at that time

Since that Burnley loss 

Manchester United’s record in all competition since the 2-0 home defeat to Burnley on January 22, 2020: 

52 games, 34 wins, 9 draws, 9 losses

They finished third in the Premier League last season but have lost four semi-finals since then.  

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That 2-0 defeat was United’s eighth in the Premier League alone and it was only January 22. Their most effective striker, Marcus Rashford, was out with a double stress fracture in his back, while their most expensive signing, Paul Pogba, was sidelined too.

Solskjaer had claimed his United team was ‘making strides’ after a 2-0 defeat at Liverpool a few days earlier but the club icon was fooling nobody. Losing to Burnley was a fresh low. Liverpool sat 30 points and a brutal gulf in class in front.

And yet, as United prepare to play Burnley once again on Tuesday night, Ole is still at the wheel, his team are purring and, astonishingly, they have the opportunity to move above Liverpool and top of the Premier League.

For the first time since the Alex Ferguson years, United actually look like they might challenge for the title. Victory at Turf Moor in this game in hand would take them three points clear of Liverpool ahead of a showdown at Anfield this Sunday.

Nobody who witnessed United’s capitulation to Burnley on that bitterly cold January night last year could have predicted such an impressive transformation in fortunes.

Now the mood at Old Trafford has been completely transformed with Solskjaer's side looking increasingly like genuine title challengers this season

Now the mood at Old Trafford has been completely transformed with Solskjaer’s side looking increasingly like genuine title challengers this season

Solskjaer has overseen a considerable improvement in the almost 12 months since that loss

Solskjaer has overseen a considerable improvement in the almost 12 months since that loss

United will move top of the Premier League if they win their game in hand against Burnley at Turf Moor on Tuesday night. They then head to Liverpool on Sunday

United will move top of the Premier League if they win their game in hand against Burnley at Turf Moor on Tuesday night. They then head to Liverpool on Sunday 

It’s tempting to conclude that the signing of a certain Bruno Fernandes – who arrived from Sporting Lisbon a week after that Burnley debacle – has made the entire difference for revitalised United.

Certainly the £47million signing’s contribution of 27 goals and 17 assists in 47 matches for United has been hugely significant. But it would be unfair on the work Solskjaer has done to simply pin it all on one player.

Fernandes has certainly given Solskjaer a talismanic figure to build everything else around and his star quality has impacted on everyone else in United’s attack, presenting them with more chances to score.

The Portuguese playmaker has also been crucial in overcoming what had become a mental block for United – how to break down opponents who massed players in defence, especially at Old Trafford.

Fernandes wasn’t cheap but he has been the key to unlock the door in so many games since his arrival. United now find a way to break through, more often than not.

Bruno Fernandes, signed a week after that Burnley debacle, has transformed the team

Bruno Fernandes, signed a week after that Burnley debacle, has transformed the team

27 goals and 17 assists from Fernandes have helped United become title contenders this year

27 goals and 17 assists from Fernandes have helped United become title contenders this year

Man United fixtures 

Premier League unless stated 

Tuesday Burnley (A)

January 17 Liverpool (A)

January 20 Fulham (A)

January 23/24 Liverpool (FA Cup)

January 27 Sheffield United (H)

January 30 Arsenal (A)

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Other improvements have been the consequence of keeping faith with Solskjaer when it would have been far easier to sack him in the wake of that Burnley defeat last January.

The super sub who took mental notes of everything Ferguson said and did in different scenarios in the expectation of one day becoming a manager himself was always going to be better placed to restore United’s never-say-die spirit than an outsider.

That knack of fighting to the final whistle and of never giving up however hopeless the situation has been at the core of their resurgence this season.

Comeback wins over Everton, Southampton, West Ham and Sheffield United in recent weeks have pointed to a more resolute spirit. 

In an ideal world, they wouldn’t fall behind in the first place but you sense in the first half of last season, they just wouldn’t have fought back in the same way.

That spirit was summed up by the last-ditch blocks Eric Bailly made to preserve three points against Aston Villa on New Year’s Day.

Edinson Cavani led a thrilling comeback at Southampton that spoke of United's new spirit

Edinson Cavani led a thrilling comeback at Southampton that spoke of United’s new spirit

Eric Bailly celebrates at the final whistle of United's recent win over Villa after crucial blocks

Eric Bailly celebrates at the final whistle of United’s recent win over Villa after crucial blocks

The early-season defensive issues that saw United concede three to Crystal Palace and six to Tottenham have largely been dealt with.

Harry Maguire was much criticised for his off-field escapades during the summer but United’s captain has not shied away and it’s impossible to question the dedication of someone who played more minutes in 2020 that any other elite footballer.

Having seen his early season hampered by Covid symptoms and the meddling of his agent Mino Raiola, Paul Pogba has also rallied to the cause, helping to solve a messy situation in midfield.

It may yet transpire that Pogba leaves United in the summer but for the time being, he seems encouraged to try and forge a partnership with Fernandes which could prove hugely effective.

Solskjaer can also be pleased with the form of Rashford, who has scored 14 goals so far this season, and the way Edinson Cavani is imposing himself on English football.

Harry Maguire's dedication to the cause as captain can't be faulted as a near ever-present

Harry Maguire’s dedication to the cause as captain can’t be faulted as a near ever-present 

Paul Pogba has started having more impact in games though his future at the club is unclear

Paul Pogba has started having more impact in games though his future at the club is unclear

The Uruguayan may have caused controversy with his Instagram post, earning a three-match ban many considered harsh, but the 33-year-old could yet have a similar impact at United to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

While United’s lack of squad depth does continue to ring alarm bells, there is a greater sense at present the likes of Dan James, Juan Mata and Axel Tuanzebe can step in and perform well when asked to.

This will be essential in allowing Solskjaer to give the likes of Maguire, Fernandes and Rashford a rest although they’ve been paired with Liverpool in the FA Cup and face Europa League assignments that will clog up the calendar in the months ahead.

United’s overall improvement on the pitch cannot be disputed but the strong situation they find themselves in is also down in some part to circumstances.

There was a reaction to that Burnley defeat before the Covid-19 pandemic forced football into a three-month hiatus – including notable wins over Chelsea and Manchester City.

Marcus Rashford has scored 14 times in what is turning into an outstanding season for him

Marcus Rashford has scored 14 times in what is turning into an outstanding season for him 

But when United returned to the training ground, the extra time afforded Solskjaer to convey his ideas to the team resulted in some stunning performances post-restart that catapulted them to a third-place finish.

They went 19 matches unbeaten either side of the lockdown following that shock loss to Burnley.  

Bridging that enormous gap to Liverpool has undoubtedly been helped by the reigning champions running out of steam in several games during the first half of this season.

Jurgen Klopp has suffered an injury pile-up, especially in defence, and it’s contributed to dropped points against the likes of Brighton, Fulham, West Brom, Newcastle and Southampton that simply wouldn’t have happened last season.

With Manchester City only just starting to look like their old selves, Chelsea bedding in too many new signings and everyone showing inconsistency, an opportunity has presented itself for United.

Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, beset by injury problems, haven't been the same force this season

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, beset by injury problems, haven’t been the same force this season

The team that lines up at Turf Moor on Tuesday night and at Anfield on Sunday has progressed beyond recognition from that sorry mess beaten by Burnley almost 12 months ago.

Solskjaer’s team are far from the finished article – last week’s defeat to City in the Carabao Cup semi-final exposed a side that still freezes within touching distance of silverware – but there’s no doubt they have a genuine title shot.

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