Following Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Burnley, finally the fans have something to be happy about. While likely benefiting from the fact Sean Dyche’s men have already played six more games than United this season, travelling to Aberdeen and Istanbul in the process, the three points won’t mean any less to Jose Mourinho.
After a decent opening day performance against Leicester in a 2-1 win, any tiredness or sloppiness was largely forgiven due to the fact so many of United’s players returned late from the World Cup and didn’t have the benefit of a pre-season to get them match fit.
However, the embarrassing 3-2 defeat away to Brighton in the following game set alarm bells ringing. While it was clear all three of the opposition goals came from bizarre individual defensive errors, the worry was how little fight the players showed in the second half to get themselves back in to the game.
Against Tottenham Hotspur, there were signs of improvement, with them creating more chances in the opening 35 minutes than they had in the entire game against Brighton. While the more offensive football was pleasing to see, it counts for little if you don’t put the chances away. United had 23 shots to Spurs’ nine, yet the visiting team scored three and United didn’t score any.
The Stretford End was in full voice at the end of the game though, which caused Mourinho to come on to the pitch and applaud them with a United scarf in his hand.
“They answer in an absolutely amazing way,” Mourinho said after the game. “I don’t think it’s normal for a team to lose 3-0 at home, and for the supporters to react in that way.”
In his Friday press conference ahead of the Burnley trip, Mourinho elaborated on this point, explaining why the supporters had shown some positivity after the loss.
“The players showed passion and I think the reaction of the fans was not for me, but for the players, for the team,” he said. “It was for us, as a team. But the fans were behind the team since the first minute because the team was playing magnificently. So it was a reaction to say, OK, we lost and the defeat means always zero points, even if you play well, but the way the team played and fought, I think the fans decided to have that reaction.”
United started the game as well as they had against Spurs but again were wasteful with their chances. Still, it was encouraging to see that Mourinho set his team up to attack, as demanded by the fans, rather than giving the similar conservative orders that had led to their demise against Brighton.
With half an hour played, United finally took advantage of their domination, with Alexis Sanchez playing an inch-perfect cross in to Romelu Lukaku to head home. He had been the biggest culprit of squandering easy chances at 0-0 in the previous two games, so it was important for him and the team that he was able to make amends.
Just before half-time, United killed off the game with a second goal, again courtesy of Lukaku, after Jesse Lingard’s quick feet created an opening and the Belgian was first to react to the blocked shot. Now only Aleksandar Mitrovic and Sadio Mane have more goals than Lukaku so far this season.
It wasn’t a game without incident though, with referee Jon Moss taking centre-stage in the final third of the game.
His first decision was to award a penalty to United for a foul on Marcus Rashford who had just come off the bench for Sanchez. Having already scored two penalties this season, Pogba stepped up confidently to take a third, but his poor attempt was easily saved by Joe Hart, much to the delight of the home fans who had been singing about what a waste of money he was.
This roused the Burnley players and fans, who sought to find a way back in to the game, and their chances of doing this increased when Rashford was sent off with 20 minutes left to play.
Fellow former academy graduate Phil Bardsley was beaten for pace by Rashford and then kicked out at him once the ball had gone. The young United forward was understandably upset about this, just as Bardsley had likely intended, with Mourinho later calling him naïve for his reaction. Rashford pushed his forehead up against Bardsley’s, although to call it a headbutt would be an exaggeration, as was the right-back’s dramatic response to the coming together.
Rashford gave Moss a decision to make though, when really he should have just kept his cool
However, the surprise came when the referee opted to show Bardsley a yellow card for his reaction, when he was guilty of doing exactly the same thing to Rashford jutting his forehead in to him. His initial kick was overlooked altogether.
Still, even with 10 men, United continued to dominate and when Lukaku was through on goal it looked as though the game would be put to bed. However, Ben Mee wrapped his arms around the Belgian and pulled him to the ground. Instead of booking the Burnley defender and awarding a penalty, Moss instead opted for a goal kick.
Minutes later, Lukaku found himself in a similar position. This time Mee threw himself to the floor, diverted the direction of the ball with his hand and therefore denied a clear goal scoring opportunity. Instead of sending Mee off, Moss gave a throw-in.
Thankfully, United were able to hold on, so it mattered little. Having collapsed in recent games when things didn’t go their way, it showed a renewed vigour that the team have been missing this season to keep the score line at 2-0 when the big decisions kept going against them.
At the final whistle, Mourinho climbed over the advertising hoardings to get closer to the fans and thank them again for their rousing support. In his post-match conference, he explained what an impact their positivity had on the team.
“We knew that this was a must-win game for us and the fans played with us but I think they started playing with us since the end of the game against Tottenham,” he said. “That was the crucial moment, that the best feeling was given to the team when the team most needed it. This week was a very good week and was one when we didn’t feel in any moment that we were coming from a defeat. The spirit was high exactly because of that reaction at Old Trafford.”
— Telegraph Football (@TeleFootball) September 2, 2018
Going in to the international break, United had to win, so that the bad feeling over the past few weeks wasn’t allowed to fester. To do so with such ease was important and came as a huge relief to the fans.
Some may have chosen to fly a banner over the stadium before the game calling Ed Woodward a specialist in failure and others may continue to berate Mourinho on social media, but for those inside the stadium, going to games, the manager still has their backing.