Five minutes after Jesse Lingard capped off nearly two hours of Manchester United pressure on Tuesday with a liberating, comeback-completing goal, applause rolled around Old Trafford. It was only natural. But it was measured. Disgruntled, even. And rightly so.
Lingard’s two tallies at either end of the second half earned United a dramatic come-from-behind draw at home against Burnley. The path to the point explained the applause.
But the result – a point, or rather two points dropped, at home against Burnley – isn’t good enough. The performance – uninventive, uninspiring, spirited but underwhelming – wasn’t good enough.
A home draw against Burnley isn’t the kind of result that keeps a team above water in the title race. It’s not the kind of result that will win an increasingly heated battle for the Champions League places. It was, rather, emblematic of United under Jose Mourinho. And not in a good way.
Before the Red Devils even had a chance to impose themselves on the game, they were behind. They failed to clear a free kick at the first attempt, failed to spring to a loose ball, and allowed Ashley Barnes to lash it past David De Gea.
The goal set the pattern for the game. It was as predictable as could be. Burnley was content to camp out in its own half, its midfielders only closing down United players when they ventured into the final third. United created half-chances, though nothing clear-cut. It stifled Burnley nearly every time the visitors won possession, but couldn’t turn its long spells on the ball into quality shots or goals.
Back in August and September, United had drawn rave reviews at both ends of the pitch. But lost in much of the analysis was the amount of time it spent playing with the lead. It had scored an inordinate amount of early goals. Once in front, it excelled with numbers behind the ball and on the counter. But since, when it has conceded the opener, it has struggled. That was Tuesday’s script.
United couldn’t break Burnley down, and every now and then, the Clarets did adventure upfield. In the 35th minute, they won a 50/50, and Scott Arfield lured Ashley Young into a foul. Steven Defour bent the ensuing free kick over the United wall, and in off the fingertips of a stretching De Gea.
Burnley was pinned farther back after doubling its lead. In the five minutes after the goal, it needed a Ben Mee goal-line clearance and a fantastic Kevin Long sliding block to keep United off the board. Paul Pogba also wrapped a curling long-range drive around the far post rather than inside it.
Mourinho’s halftime double-change lifted United, and woke up Old Trafford. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Lingard replaced Marcos Rojo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Five minutes after entering, Lingard hit the crossbar twice with the same shot, but somehow didn’t score:
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Three-and-a-half minutes later, he halved Burnley’s lead with a slick back-flick:
As much as United pressed, though, and as many men as the hosts threw forward, they couldn’t find a second goal. Their lack of invention was flagrant. They hoofed far too many aimless balls into the box. When they tried to weave their way through the Burnley low block centrally, they instead rammed into it. Sean Dyche applauded his players’ resolve from the touchline as Mourinho seethed.
One of the aimless balls eventually fell to Lingard in the 91st minute. The young Englishmen caught it cleanly enough to find the far corner, with Nick Pope rooted to his spot.
But the comeback only would have been truly complete with a third goal. In the end, a home draw with Burnley is almost as unsatisfactory as a loss. It will allow Manchester City to go 15 points clear at the top of the Premier League on Wednesday.
The Red Devils had hung around in the title race longer than they should have. They had nicked results here and there while underwhelming. But now they’re stumbling. Questions about Mourinho’s approach are swirling. The title has swirled away, but the bigger issue is just how deep United’s problems run.
The problems three days ago at Leicester were a lack of concentration and “childishness” mistakes. On Tuesday, it was primarily predictability that plagued United. Not predictability in the team selection, but rather in the approach.
Mourinho paired Romelu Lukaku and Ibrahimovic together for the first time. He put creative players like Juan Mata and Paul Pogba behind them. He had pace in wide areas, and balance seemingly throughout the side.
Yet it still looked like a Jose Mourinho team in the worst sense. It was unimaginative. It was at times stagnant. Mourinho moaned after the game about insufficient spending. But he has the players. At some point, his approach must be slid under a microscope. In its last six games against clearly inferior opponents, United hasn’t won by more than one goal. Its mediocrity has been eye-opening.