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Preview: Manchester United vs. Burnley

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United host Burnley on Boxing Day in the Premier League, and will hope to bounce back after dropping points on Saturday.

Burnley v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Manchester United play Boxing Day host as Premier League upstart Burnley come to Old Trafford in search of three points. Winless in two, United will surely be happy to be home, having played three straight on the road.

Those travels ended in disappointment, with the club bowing out of the League Cup against Bristol City and then dropping points at Leicester City. In that 2-2 draw at the King Power Stadium, United squandered several chances to kill off the match before surrendering an equalizer at the death.

While Jose Mourinho and his players will rue that last-second defensive lapse, the more worrying sight was Chris Smalling hobbling off the pitch at game’s end. Already beset by a center back health crisis, United can ill afford for the dependable Smalling to join the ranks of the injured.

Victor Lindelof moved to right back on Saturday to replace the crocked Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian, but will now surely revert to a central position out of sheer necessity. With the Burnley match following so quickly in this busy festive period, there’s no telling how the Manchester United defense will line up — or even who will be physically able to play.

Burnley’s success this season comes as a shock to everyone in the football world. In the club’s two previous seasons in the Premier League, the goal was simply to survive — and most pundits tipped them for a similar ambition in 2017/18. The Clarets, though, had other ideas. At the season’s halfway point, they sit seventh in the table and look like legitimate challengers for a Europa League berth.

This Burnley side is proof that old-fashioned tactics can still be devastatingly effective in the current day. Their defense focuses on throwing bodies in front of opposing shots and, when in doubt, hoofing the ball to safety; they attack with long passes to their wide players, who deliver pinpoint crosses to Chris Wood or Sam Vokes lurking in the box. Possession purists might scoff at this stone-age style, but the results speak for themselves.

Already this season, the Clarets spoiled opening day at Stamford Bridge by defeating Chelsea 3-2 and earned hard-fought draws against Arsenal and Liverpool. Nothing would make them happier than to add Manchester United to that list of conquests.

Luckily for the Red Devils, standout Burnley defender James Tarkowski will miss Boxing Day as he continues serving his suspension for an errant elbow to the head of Brighton’s Glenn Murray. Tarkowski ranks second in the Premier League in blocked shots (tied with teammate Ben Mee), so his absence shouldn’t be underestimated.

Tottenham certainly managed to exploit the Tarkowski-sized hole in Burnley’s defense on Saturday. Dele Alli and Harry Kane repeatedly ripped open the Clarets backline en route to a 3-0 win at Turf Moor.

Circling back to Burnley’s incredible aptitude for blocking shots, that will definitely be something to watch for on Tuesday. Sean Dyche’s side leads the Premier League in that category, far outpacing second-best Brighton. The gulf grows even larger when compared against Manchester United — the Clarets have blocked almost twice as many shots as United. Even accounting for the number of shots each team faces, it’s clear that this is a skill that Dyche has carefully cultivated in his squad.

Burnley’s game-plan will be no secret — defend with everyone and hope to hit United on the break. Many smaller teams utilize that tactic when playing at Old Trafford, but Burnley are extraordinarily good at it. If there was ever a match for Paul Pogba to re-assert the dominance and creativity he showed pre-hamstring injury, this would be the one.

If Manchester United can grab an early goal, Burnley will find the road back quite difficult. The Clarets are built to play from in front, so a strong start from the men in red could take much of the sting out of the visitors. For all the praise that Burnley gets (and richly deserves), their +1 GD reveals that they have had their share of luck along the way.

After Chelsea dropped points at the weekend, Manchester United blew a chance to strengthen their grasp on second place. They cannot afford similar profligacy against Burnley on Boxing Day as the season officially moves into its second act. Jose Mourinho’s side might have found a lump of coal in their stockings at Leicester, but a win over Burnley could still make this a happy Christmas.