Two points dropped at home against a Burnley side that spent roughly a fifth of what Manchester United did during the summer, especially after Jose Mourinho’s comments on Manchester City’s outlay under Pep Guardiola, was the inevitable headline from the Boxing Day action at Old Trafford.
The Red Devils could now fall an incredible 15 points behind the Premier League’s runaway pace-setters should they triumph as expected over Newcastle on Wednesday evening, while United have now lost to Championship outfit Bristol City, drawn to Leicester City and the Clarets in consecutive games. If English football’s hectic winter period separates the wheat from the chaff, Mourinho’s United seemingly belong in the latter category.
“We are in the second year of trying to rebuild a football team that is not one of the best teams in the world. Manchester City buy full-backs for the price of strikers. When you speak about big football clubs, you are speaking about the history of the club. [£300m] is not enough.”
Yet, in almost any other Premier League season and particularly those with Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm, a Boxing Day comeback against the division’s pluckiest side would be viewed as something of a moral victory for the Red Devils – or at the very least, the kind of positive reaction to their own failings that’s been at the very core of the club’s DNA during the last three decades.
United once prided themselves on gung-ho second halves and late goals, especially when scored by the club’s academy products. So why has Jesse Lingard’s 45-minute brace, started with an ingenious flicked finish and completed in stoppage time, left such a foul taste of disappointment? Why has United’s Boxing Day thriller become two points dropped rather than one gained?
The obvious answer is that United should comfortably beat Burnley at Old Trafford – the Clarets’ last victory there was all the way back in 1962 – but that assumption underestimates Burnley in the way many of Manchester United’s divisional rivals have already this season; Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and now United have all either drawn or lost to Sean Dyche’s side at home, which is exactly why they’re seventh in the table.
The Clarets are in that position on merit and the only top six side who haven’t conceded points to Burnley at home this season are Manchester City – even United fans would admit Guardiola’s team are currently in a league of their own.
So perhaps a wider, more considered answer is whether United fans really know what they want from Mourinho. Since being appointed in 2016, the sections of support criticising Mourinho’s negative tactics have grown louder and louder. But the Boxing Day starting XI included two top-class centre-forwards, another striker out wide in Marcus Rashford, a luxury playmaker in Juan Mata and two incredibly offensive full-backs in Luke Shaw and Ashley Young.
It was an attacking line-up and became even more so after United went two goals down – by the end of the match, United’s back four included three players who have played or still do play in midfield – Young, Nemanja Matic and Phil Jones – while the midfield consisted of four attacking players – Mata, Rashford, Lingard and Henrik Mkhitaryan – being anchored by Paul Pogba, hardly the most disciplined of engine room options. The changes had the desired effect too; in the second half, United had 14 shots at goal, further increased their possession from 68% to 71%, and scored twice.
Apart from a third goal and a far superior performance from Romelu Lukaku, who was worryingly disappointing yet again, United supporters couldn’t really have asked for much more from the second half. Placed in the context of another season, under a different manager with different players, that last 45 minutes would have gone down as vintage United, showing the heart, passion and belief that the club built its modern success upon. If United supporters want the kind of gung-ho performances and last-minute action that echoes the thrills of the Ferguson era, they won’t come too much closer than this with Mourinho in charge.
But in many ways, that epitomises how self-perpetuating Mourinho’s pragmatic approach becomes over a sustained period of time. After two games in which United produced a combined 42 shots at goal compared to their opponents’ 14, Mourinho can rightly argue the attacking quality and control his side showed for the vast majority of that 180 minutes hasn’t been adequately justified in terms of results.
But when your philosophy is so focused on results rather than performance, that mentality becomes infectious, to the point where results are the only thing Mourinho’s United are truly judged upon. And on paper at least, a home draw with Burnley is a disappointing one.
“We had some, we also lost some good passing opportunities and didn’t attack all the crosses we had, but the spirit was really, really good, and I have nothing negative to say about my boys. Amazing spirit, starting both matches behind, recovering and trying to win and being the best team on the pitch. But of course we wanted six points, and we have two.”
Mourinho, though, doesn’t help himself either. While he did argue the merits of United’s performance and the character required to pull off their late comeback following the final whistle, he then overshadowed it by bringing Manchester City’s spending into the discussion. ‘United draw at home as Mourinho moans about City spending’ was always going to be the prevailing narrative, and if there’s one team you shouldn’t bring up after failing to win, it’s probably the only side who are above you in the table and the only top six side who’ve beaten Burnley at home this season.
If United had limited his post-match analysis to simply the endeavour of his own players, perhaps the Boxing Day comeback would be viewed as the closest Mourinho has come to bringing Fergie-esque, frenetic finishes back to Old Trafford.
Instead, the debate has moved onto the apparent motivation behind everything these days – money.