Continuing to spin straw into gold since his arrival at Old Trafford, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looks to make it nine wins on the spin Tuesday when Manchester United host Burnley.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
A once-moribund United squad (13-5-5) have pulled level with Arsenal for fifth in the table, trailing the Gunners on goal difference while lurking three points behind Chelsea for the fourth and final Champions League spot.
But in a telling FA Cup fourth-round tie Friday that showed just how far Manchester United have come since Jose Mourinho was sacked, they were clearly the better side in a 3-1 romp past Arsenal at the Emirates. Solskjaer was again spot-on with his personnel selection and tactics as ex-Gunner Alexis Sanchez opened the scoring.
Utilising a 4-3-1-2 formation that had Jesse Lingard in the hole underneath Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku, the England international bagged the second as both goals were set up by the Belgium international. After Arsenal pulled one back shortly before halftime, United saw off the match through Anthony Martial on 82 minutes as he and Marcus Rashford made sure there would be no easing off the throttle after their introduction together in the 72nd minute.
The reward for United was a trip to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea in the fifth round in a rematch of last year’s FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium.
“It was a fantastic finish (from Alexis for the first goal) and a great pass from Rom (Lukaku) I have to say. Just before that I’d said ‘Rom you should be in the box!'” Solskjaer told United’s official website. “But then he makes that pass which was fantastic. The second and third goals were classic Man United counter-attacks.
“We had to defend properly which we did today and really had to dig in, we had a much better structure than we did against Tottenham. We defended resiliently and the attitude to run forward was fantastic.”
United are enjoying their longest winning streak since a nine-game run from Dec. 8, 2016 to Jan. 10, 2017. They have outscored opponents 22-5 during their run, with rejuvenated midfielder Paul Pogba factoring on nine of them with five goals and four assists. And in a sign of just how well Solskjaer has a sense of the pulse of his side, he has gotten three goals from substitutes since taking over compared to the six Mourinho racked up in 24 matches before being let go.
Though Lukaku has yet to start a league match since Solskjaer took over, he has also found a second wind since the managerial switch. The Belgian has three goals and two assists in six matches and looked comfortable in the channel compared to his usual centre-forward spot.
“Rom has played there for Belgium and for Everton, it was against Arsenal actually a few years back, and he played there in the World Cup against Brazil so that’s a tactic we can use,” Solskjaer explained. “We know how strong he is coming in at the back post if we can get crosses in which we didn’t actually manage to do tonight, but he held the ball and ran the channel and brought other players into play and it was a fantastic pass for Alexis’s goal.”
Burnley’s best run of play this term came to a crashing halt Saturday when they were overrun 5-0 at reigning league champions Manchester City in the FA Cup, ending a five-match unbeaten streak (4-1-0).
It was the second straight season the Clarets (6-4-13) had their FA Cup adventure end at the Etihad, but the short-term disappointment of crashing out of the tournament may have the long-term benefit of increasing their focus on the relegation scrap. Burnley are 16th in the table on 22 points, three clear of the drop.
“We patched a team together today, once again, so I am not too disgruntled with it,” Burnley gaffer Sean Dyche told the club’s official website, referring to his five-man back line that included Robbie Brady.
“We’ve been on a run of five very, very good performances and we had to protect the situation today and get some minutes into the players who were coming back from injury, such as (Stephen) Ward and (Steven) Defour.”
Brady, who was making his return after serving a three-game ban for his red card against Huddersfield Town on Jan. 2, was forced off at halftime with a groin injury. Dyche, though, singled out Dwight McNeil for plaudits as the 19-year-old continues to make himself indispensable in the midfield.
“No matter what is going on in the game, he wants it, wants to help his team mates deliver and he puts doubts into the opposition,” Dyche said. “I said to him after to keep enjoying his football, because he is on a nice upwards curve and I have great admiration for him.
“He’s 19 and going around all these Premier League grounds and showing that nice edge of borderline confidence and arrogance.”
That kind of confidence and arrogance has been in short supply for Burnley at Old Trafford, where they are 0-2-2 in the Premier League era and winless in the last eight league meetings (0-3-5) since a 1-0 victory in 2009 in their first top-flight meeting. The Clarets are 0-7-11 in their last 18 visits to the Theatre of Dreams since a 5-2 win in the First Division in 1962.
Lukaku’s first-half brace accounted for the scoring in the reverse fixture as United won 2-0 at Turf Moor on Sept. 2. Pogba missed a second-half penalty and Rashford was sent off after a head tap on Phil Bardsley after the Clarets defender took an unnecessary swipe at him with his foot.
Per Bet365, United are healthy 2/9 favourites to continue their 100 percent record under Solskjaer, while Burnley are 10/1 longshots to win for the fifth time in seven matches across all competitions. The odds of the Clarets nicking a point in Old Trafford are 11/2.
Given Burnley’s season-long struggles at the back, there are 8/15 odds to clear 2.5 goals compared to 6/4 for below that threshold. Oddsmakers also think United are capable of recording a clean sheet, offering 3/4 odds for at least one compared to even money for both teams scoring.
Despite his likely status as a reserve, Lukaku is the top option to open the scoring at 10/3, followed by Rashford (15/4) and Martial (4/1). Sanchez and Pogba round out the top five, with both at 9/2 to make it 1-0 to the hosts, with Lingard another step back at 13/2. Bournemouth have a trio of players at 12/1 — Ashley Barnes, Chris Wood and Matej Vydra.
Lukaku and Rashford are both better than even money to score during the 90 minutes at 4/5 and 10/11, respectively, and Martial is an even money pick. Sanchez and Pogba are just off that mark at 11/10, and Lingard checks in at 7/4. Barnes, Wood, and Vydra all offer a 7/2 return to score, with Sam Vokes lurking behind the three at 4/1.
Ho-hum, another match, another win for Manchester United. In theory, it should not be this easy for Solskjaer, who has pushed all the right buttons and made all the right tactical and personnel moves. As auditions go for the full-time job, the Norwegian has yet to put a wrong foot forward, and he has the next three matches — starting with this one — before a challenging three-match gauntlet on all fronts in a fortnight.
United open their round of 16 Champions League tie at home versus Paris-St. Germain on Feb. 12, had their FA Cup tie added to the docket on Feb. 17, and will host current Premier League leaders Liverpool on Feb. 24. These matches will likely go a long way in determining if Solskjaer is truly a potential full-time hire for the club.
Saturday’s hammering by City aside, Burnley are playing their best football of the season. As Dyche noted, the FA Cup exit can be euphemistically described as an “acceptable loss” considering they are in the midst of a relegation scrap while also being four points out of 13th. A lack of offence is still a concern considering the Clarets have totaled just 23 goals in as many league matches, but their defence has tightened and had conceded only two goals in their unbeaten run.
It can be argued they faced only one team with a potent offence in that run in West Ham United, but at the same time, you can only play who is in front of you. With seemingly every Manchester United attacking player in form, this is a stern challenge for Burnley. And with the match at Old Trafford, it appears to be a bridge too far for the Clarets to find a helpful result.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 3, Burnley 0.