Just over a year ago, Boxing Day 2017 to be exact, Manchester United tied Burnley 2-2 at Old Trafford. Burnley scored early through Ashley Barnes and doubled the lead late in the first half through Steven Defour. But Jesse Lingard was brought on at half time to make an impact, scoring a late brace to tie the game up. The result of Tuesday’s match between Manchester United and Burnley was therefore somewhat predictable.
Burnley scored first in the 51st minute and doubled their lead on the 81st. Manchester United scored goals in the 87th and 92nd minute to tie it up. It felt like a classic Fergie Time win from the past, one caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer himself was regularly part of. This Premier League tactical analysis will observe Burnley’s defensive system, Manchester United’s attacking formation and some of the key moments from the match.
Only six Manchester United players kept their spot from the victory over Arsenal last Friday, with Ole returning David De Gea and Marcus Rashford to his team. Juan Mata, Andreas Pereira, and Phil Jones were also given starts. The formation remained similar, however, Romelu Lukaku returned to a central striker role with Jesse Lingard absent from his false-nine position.
Burnley’s formation changed dramatically, with only four players retaining spots in the starting eleven after a 5-0 loss at the Etihad. James Tarkowski, Charlie Taylor, Dwight McNeil, and Jeff Hendrick all retained a spot in the team, however, only Tarkowski kept his position. McNeil and Taylor swapped to the left from the right, and Hendrick moved to left midfield from the centre. Instead of opting for a 5-4-1, Sean Dyche reverted to a classic 4-4-2. This allowed an attacking partnership of Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes to press Manchester United’s defenders during their buildup play.
Manchester United bossed the game with 75% of possession, 647 passes, and 28 shots. But it was Burnley’s admirable defending that ultimately changed the shape of the game. Burnley won 13 of 19 attempted tackles, made 55 clearances, and 19 blocks. Tom Heaton made seven saves throughout the match, standing on his head at times to keep his team in the game. The story of the game can be summed up with the Attacking Momentum chart provided by SofaScore.
Manchester United’s attack
Manchester United constantly applied pressure on Burnley throughout the 90 minutes of play. The Red Devils were willing to attack from all angles as well. Mata returned to the team on the right wing but tucked narrower in the field than Lukaku against Arsenal. This allowed Ashley Young tons of space on the right touchline. On the left side, Shaw pushed up the field, engaging in linkup play with Rashford and Pogba.
The above heatmap shows the different roles of the Manchester United fullbacks. Young’s objective was to stay wide and drag out the Burnley defenders in an attempt to create space in the center of the park. Luke Shaw, on the other hand, played a much bigger role in the build-up play, connecting with Pogba and Rashford as indicated in the heatmap below.
Pogba was central to United’s attack as well, putting in a solid performance on Tuesday. From his linkup play to his driving dribbles, many of United’s chances involved the Frenchman. He averages 1.43 goal involvements per 90 minutes under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. His second best season, statistically, was in 2017/2018 when he averaged just 0.67 goal involvements per 90 minutes. On Tuesday, he helped create chances, even bagging himself a goal from the penalty spot.
Although the work ethic defending their 18-yard-box played a pivotal role in securing a point at Old Trafford, we will be focusing on Burnley’s defending further up the field. Mirroring last year’s defensive masterclasses, Burnley frustrated Manchester United’s playmakers with little to no time on the ball. Adopting a high press style, as discussed in our Total Football Magazine #4, Burnley quickly closed down any United player in possession. This forced most of United’s build-up play to focus around Phil Jones and Victor Lindelof while Burnley’s midfielders prevented direct balls into attacking areas.
Burnley defended with two blocks of four, allowing Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes to share the responsibility of pressing United’s central defenders. When the ball went out wide to Shaw or Young, Dwight McNeil or Jeff Hendrick would occasionally join Wood and Barnes to create a 4-3-3 defensive shape. When the ball was switched to the opposite side, the wide man would drop back into the block of three, allowing the other wide man to press the ball.
The build-up to Burnley’s first goal is a perfect example of this. Phil Jones plays a sloppy pass into Andreas Pereira who is instantly pressured by Jack Cork. Cork wins the ball from Pereira, who is caught off guard, and lays it off for Ashley Barnes to smash it into the back of De Gea’s net. By patiently pressing United deep in their own half, Burnley capitalised on the eventual mistake. United’s defenders were spread wide, allowing Cork and Barnes to explode into a 2v1 against Jones.
Burnley’s second goal
The second Burnely goal starts with an interception from a high press. Burnley’s defender steps up to meet the ball into Marcus Rashford and knocks the ball back into United’s third. After a few passes, Ashley Westwood finds himself with space at the edge of United’s 18-yard-box to put in a cross. Poor defending from Andreas Pereira and Victor Lindelof results in a free header for Chris Wood, who makes it two.
Andreas Pereira neglects the run of his man, forcing Lindelof to leave Ashley Young outnumbered at the back post. This disjoined defending from Manchester United highlights the already obvious weak spot of Solskjaer’s team. The commitment to attack left United exposed and susceptible to an effective counterattack. But the commitment to attack paid off, and despite being down two goals in the game’s dying embers, Manchester United came back.
In the build-up to the penalty, Manchester United engaged in some quick link-up play on the left side of the field. Ashley Young tucked into Burnley’s 18-yard-box to pull Jeff Hendrick out of position. This allowed a pocket of space for Jesse Lingard to occupy, who eventually found the ball at his feet. Lingard took a touch toward goal before being pulled down by a recovering Hendrick.
This wasn’t the only time United created space inside Burnley’s 18-yard-box. During the first half, United once again possessed the ball on the left side of the field, pulling Burnley’s defenders out wide. But as space opened up, Mata and Lukaku occupied the same space within the box between four Burnley defenders.
Once Lingard was introduced to the game, he allowed himself to find these space, pushing Mata into a deeper playmaking role. It was Juan Mata who eventually played the ball into Lingard before the penalty was awarded.
In the end, Burnley’s high press burned them. In stoppage time they committed four players to close down Ashley Young who received a pass at the top of the box. While the defenders rushed to block a potential shot, Alexis Sanchez, Victor Lindelof, and Marcus Rashford flooded the back post. Young dinked the ball over the oncoming players onto the head of Sanchez. Sanchez’s header was expertly saved by Heaton. Unfortunately for the English goalkeeper, he parried the shot right into the path of Victor Lindelof who made no mistake.
In the image above, we can see Manchester United players outnumber an isolated Phil Bardsley. Sanchez does well to win the header but the unmarked run of Lindelof poses the biggest threat to Burnley.
The result is a setback to Manchester United’s top-four hopes, with a difficult month of February looming on the horizon. Dyche will take the point but will feel his team should have had more. With Newcastle upsetting Manchester City, the whole three points would have made the threat of relegation less scary. United remain unbeaten under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but see their eight-game win streak come to an end.
Although both teams will walk away disappointed with the final result, it was a classic Premier League game. The underdogs shocked the hosts only to topple in the final minutes. Despite this, Sean Dyche will be relishing the opportunity to face Southampton this weekend and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be thrilled with his team’s never-give-up attitude.