After back-to-back defeats against Brighton and Tottenham, there were plenty of debates as to what Manchester United needed. A new manager? A new direction within the boardroom? A renewed vigour from their players?
One thing that couldn’t be questioned was their need to bounce back with a win at Burnley on Sunday, and boy did Jose Mourinho’s side deliver.
The action-packed 2-0 victory at Turf Moor was a showcase of many of the best traits of Manchester United. They took the game to their opponents, got themselves into a winning position and threatened to score plenty more than their final tally. And even after going down to 10 men after Marcus Rashford’s second-half red card they continued to make chances while also showing the guts necessary to deal with Burnley’s desperate attacks at the other end.
It couldn’t have been scripted better by Mourinho no matter how hard he tried. The manager had got himself worked up in the week, referring time and again to his previous honours in a bit to build a siege mentality between himself and the Manchester United supporters.
There was even a pre-match plane protest by a group of United fans, with the words ‘Ed Woodward: A specialist in failure!’ being displayed in the skies as the debate over the executive vice-chair’s relationship with the manager intensifies.
But it was the performance on the pitch that was always going to speak loudest, and here United provided the perfect answer to the critics.
They started with purpose and desire, even if their play didn’t always have the same slick feel about it which had been evident in the first half at Old Trafford on Monday night. Jesse Lingard had a trio of opportunities early on, while Alexis Sanchez regularly got into good crossing positions and both Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw were getting forward at will.
United eventually got the goal they had threatened when Sanchez waited and waited on the ball before delivering an inch-perfect cross for Romelu Lukaku to head home. It was a much-needed goal for a striker whose first-half miss against Spurs had been pinpointed by many as a key moment in the embarrassing defeat.
He would have another before half-time, sweeping home from inside the six-yard box after Jesse Lingard’s initial shot had been partially blocked. The 2-0 lead was a more than fair reflection on proceedings as a jaded Burnley barely laid a glove on United.
The visitors were equally dominant to begin the second half and should have had a third when substitute Marcus Rashford was fouled by Aaron Lennon in the Burnley area. But Paul Pogba’s penalty was saved by Joe Hart and within two minutes Rashford’s afternoon would be at an end.
The England attacker responded to Phil Bardsley’s niggle in a challenge on the bye-line by planted his head on the ex-United defender. After showing Bardsley a yellow card, Jonathan Moss produced a red for Rashford just 10 minutes after he had replaced Sanchez.
Even down to 10 men United were on top. Lukaku was somehow being denied a hat-trick by Ben Mee and Pogba dragged a shot just across goal, underlining even further how superior Mourinho’s side were.
As the final whistle approached the chant of “Mourinho’s red and white army” could be heard long and loud from the away end, just as it had in the Stretford End on Monday. It carried much cheerier tones this time around though, and nobody will be more relieved than the manager himself.
His side did the business for him in a game he could ill-afford to lose.