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Staff Takeaways: Burnley 1-1 Manchester United

Our writers share their thoughts on the draw

Burnley v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

Colin- The bad has begun to feel inevitable

I tweeted this at half-time, fearing the worst for Manchester United’s somehow only 1-0 lead.

Those fears didn’t take long to manifest in a Burnley goal, and though the hosts did well to draw level they certainly struggled to find a way through an otherwise pretty organized United defense. The only other threat on De Gea’s goal was a powerful strike from distance by Weghorst, and United went on to again create chances to retake the lead, but the pattern of starting strong before slipping and ruing missed opportunity has become far too familiar. A team’s belief in their own ability to win becomes quite fragile when squandering becomes habit.

The hope is of course that the squad improves further under Ralf Rangnick, but they’ve only managed a handful of winning performances, and have played only a couple of quality teams in the process. Scraping by or stumbling against the bottom half of the table sides won’t cut it, and United’s schedule gets a lot tougher very quickly. Matches against Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Tottenham are on the horizon, and with them comes the chance to mend or exacerbate the story of the season.

Jack- United paid for lack of control

The reintroduction of Paul Pogba offers reason for optimism, but today’s performance revealed the serious flaws that persist in United’s midfield. Notwithstanding fine first-half performances from Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho — a connection that promises much — United were still impatient playing out from the back. Too often United fell back on long balls from one of the centre-halves or Diogo Dalot, relying on lucky bounces, flick-ons or the brilliance of Fernandes’s first touch (see, for example, his contribution, and Pogba’s flick-on, in the build-up to the opening goal).

United’s attack is teeming with talent, which makes it all the more disappointing that they often rely on percentage passes to serve them. After years of sterile possession, United are now in a strange place: too impatient, too eager to send the ball into the channels with long diagonals, or over the top for an onrushing Marcus Rashford. Their lack of control in midfield was all the more apparent in the second half, when Burnley pressed higher up the pitch and put pressure on United’s defence. Scott McTominay lacks the positional nous or technical ability to do the job of receiving possession and building out from the back, and the sooner he is replaced, the better.

But United might sometimes need to be generally more compact in their build-up; instead of instantly looking for the final third, they can sometimes afford to be more patient in possession and taking the sting out of their opponents. They might benefit from narrowing the distance between their front line and their centre-halves, and temper their attacking instincts at moments in the game when they come under particular pressure. This, of course, is largely a personnel problem — but it’s also one of mentality.


1. I feel bad for Scott McTominay

At the macro level, none of this is Scott McTominay’s fault. He’s being put into a bad situation because of years and years of mismanagement - both with him (he was initially called up as a pawn in Jose Mourinho’s war with Paul Pogba) - and with United just completely neglecting to upgrade their midfield over the last three years.

McTominay is out there doing his best. You can’t fault him for lack of effort. But ultimately he’s a mid table box to box midfielder being deployed as a holding midfielder on a team with top four and - maybe one day - title aspirations.

Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes essentially only have one mode when they get the ball. Go. When it works it’s great and United are really dangerous. But you can’t “go” 100 percent of the time for 90 minutes. In order for this 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 thing with Bruno and Pogba in midfield to work, you need a holding midfielder that can support them when United want to “go,” but also can be a presence on the ball and knows when to slow things down and just maintain control or possession. A calming presence if you will. McTominay has never looked comfortable on the ball, he’s not a possession midfielder, nor is he vertical enough to contribute to United when they want to “go.”

Every team needs a hard working water carrier and there’s no problem with filling that role, but too often United put their water carrier in a position where he needs to pull the strings. His on ball limitations would be one thing if it weren’t for his complete lack of spatial awareness.

What separates good midfielders from the rest is their ability to see space on the ball, and protect space off it. In possession McTominay sees the man and out of it he sees the ball. McTominay took a very poor shot late in the first half that lead to a two v one break the other way, and the lack of spacial recognition played a big part in Burnley’s goal. McTominay was slow to get back into position, opening up space for Wout Weghorst to drop into. With no midfielder around, Maguire has to follow his man forward.

From there, it’s simple rotation. Center back vacates space, midfielder covers for him. We’ve seen this a million times this season from Fred and Matic. It happens so often you don’t even notice it because it defuses situations before they happen. If McTominay drops into Maguire’s space, Weghorst’s cutback doesn’t matter as there would still be a man there to pick him up, and Varane would be able to stay with Jay Rodriguez. Instead, McTominay runs to the ball unnecessarily and crosses in front of the ball carrier. Not only does it open up the cutback, but he then collides with Maguire taking him out of the play.

A good defensive midfielder simply covers the vacated space and this whole thing is avoided. A good midfielder would protect the space. A good midfielder would move the ball fluidly from the back to the front, getting it to United’s plethora of dangerous players in dangerous spaces. A good midfielder would mean you could actually drop Harry Maguire when he has a howler, rather than needing him in the team for all his on ball qualities.

Considering all the above it’s impressive that McTominay is even playing this role as well as he is. The McTominay were seeing now is miles better than the one we saw three years ago. McTominay under Rangnick has already drastically improved over the one we saw under Solskjaer. Nevertheless it’s hard to see him getting much better than this, and “this” has proven to be just not good enough for Manchester United.

2. It feels like I’ve seen this before

The last few matches, and certainly the last two, have reminded me of what early 2019-20 looked like under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Those United teams were doing enough to win their games, but lack of clinical finishing in front of goal meant matches which should have been won comfortably were at risk of becoming draws or worse via of magic or a single mistake.

That happened back then when United had a much younger and more inexperienced team. This current group is far more talented and far more experienced. This shouldn’t be happening anymore, especially as Colin mentioned given the quality of opposition faced.