Just like a season ago, Manchester United enter the final match of January with a perfect month on the line. In 2018, the Reds similarly started off the new year at a blazing pace before falling at the last hurdle away to Tottenham Hotspur. At Old Trafford on Tuesday night, United could go one better and achieve a 100% month for the first time since August 2016.
While Burnley’s league place (16th) hardly impresses, the Lancashire club joins Manchester United as one of the hottest sides in the Premier League. We all know about United’s amazing form under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but the Clarets have quietly embarked on a strong run of their own.
After a nightmare start to the 2018/19 season, Sean Dyche’s side has turned it around in recent weeks. On Boxing Day, a 5-1 loss to Everton was Burnley’s ninth defeat in eleven games. Relegation beckoned. But Dyche rallied the boys and rattled off four straight wins to climb out of the drop zone. Their unbeaten run ended on Saturday against Manchester City (albeit in the FA Cup), but the Clarets now have hope for top-flight survival.
City made short work of Burnley, cruising to a 5-0 victory and a place in the fifth-round draw. The Clarets kept it close at first, but broke down after Matej Vydra spurned an excellent chance early in the second half that would have drawn the visitors level against their heavily-favored opponents.
Despite the heavy defeat, Dyche chose to look on the bright side. “We’ve been on a run of five very, very good performances and we had to protect the situation today and get some minutes into the players who were coming back from injury, such as [Stephen] Ward and [Steven] Defour.”
“We have two right backs down and we lost Robbie [Brady] at halftime to a groin injury,” he continued. “There’s a lot going on and, at the minute, we know the bigger picture and the bigger fight — and that is the Premier League.”
One very interested observer at the Etihad this weekend was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. A day after leading United to an impressive 3-1 win at Arsenal, the caretaker manager was back at work scouting his next opponent.
On Friday, Solskjaer made five changes for the cup tie. He kept his first-choice midfield intact, but handed starts to Alexis Sánchez, Romelu Lukaku, Eric Bailly, and Sergio Romero. Luke Shaw, who missed out a week ago through illness, returned to his left back spot.
Alexis opened the scoring against his former club, but Lukaku made the bigger statement. Rom assisted on both of United’s first-half goals, showing his new manager that he can bring more to the team than just scoring. He’s not about to unseat the red-hot Marcus Rashford, but Lukaku continues to take his chances well under Solskjaer.
In both of the recent “big tests” — Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal — United have been out-shot and out-possessed. In fact, the Reds didn’t crack 40% possession in either match. That's not a criticism. Rather it shows one of the more successful aspects of Solskjaer’s management — the ability to grind out wins in different ways. Solskjaer is less about imposing a specific way to play (all-out attack) than using whatever tactics are needed to win on the day.
That being said, Solskjaer declared himself much happier with how his team handled the pressure at the Emirates than against Spurs earlier this month. While that 1-0 win had an air of luck about it, United were well worth the result against Arsenal.
Interesting fact: In the Premier League, United boast a very balanced attack. Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Paul Pogba each have scored eight league goals so far this season.
Expect Solskjaer to field his first-choice lineup against Burnley. That means Rashford and Martial back in the starting eleven, Phil Jones at center back, and David De Gea between the sticks. Despite strong performances by Alexis and Lukaku at Arsenal, there just aren’t any starting spots up for grabs right now.
A win over Burnley would extend the club’s winning streak under Solskjaer to nine, equaling the longest since José Mourinho’s nine-game run in 2016/17.
Manchester United need to keep the pressure on Arsenal (and Chelsea) with another win on Tuesday. Fourth place is back within reach and the Reds can’t afford to slip up now after clawing back most of the deficit. Plus, on a week when Mauricio Pochettino got bounced from two cup competitions, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can only help his chances with another strong performance.