United moved up into third place with what may appear, from the scoreline, a routine win but in reality was anything but. Despite taking an early lead, the Reds laboured and were, for large parts of the game, second best to a Burnley side who will feel they ought at least to have come away with a share of the points.
Phil Jones limped off after only five minutes and it was his replacement Chris Smalling who gave United the lead with his first touch. Rooney’s corner was touched on by Van Persie before Falcao headed back across goal for the big defender to nod the ball past ex-United youth keeper Tom Heaton.
It was a rare positive moment for the Reds in the early stages of the game. De Gea had already been forced into a fine save by Kightly when the impressive Danny Ings headed an equalizer. Burnley dominated possession for much of the first half, Ings and Barnes both going close as United looked ragged and disjointed, rarely able to string more than three passes together and frequently pressed into errors by an away team whose shape and energy contrasted sharply with United’s midfield, who too often looked sluggish and frequently got in each other’s way.
It’s an understatement, then, to say that United regained the lead against the run of play. With Blind now forced to leave the field through injury, there was an extended period of first half stoppage time and the Reds made the most of it, upping the tempo for the first time since the early minutes of the half and forcing a corner which Rooney took short, allowing Di Maria to cross for Smalling to rise and grab his second headed goal of the contest.
It was an unlikely scenario on many levels: Chris Smalling was on a hat-trick, United had scored from two well-taken corners and the home team were able to go into half time despite a largely abject performance. Things improved in the second half. Hererra, on for Blind, gave some shape to the midfield and, although United had an early scare when Smalling failed to clear and De Gea again had to make a superb save to deny Ings, the Reds kept their shape better and looked far more composed in the middle of the field.
Despite that, there was much for Van Gaal’s bum to get twitchy about. Smalling and particularly Evans looked anything but secure in central defence and the threat of Ings was a constant concern as United hung onto their lead. We weren’t able to breathe easily until eight minutes from time when Di Maria, who’d had an earlier shout for a penalty denied, was brought down in the area and Van Persie stepped up to secure the points.
The Reds might even have had a fourth when Januzaj’s shot was cleared off the line. That would have been a travesty, frankly. The scoreline was misleading enough and, while we can take comfort in the old cliche about successful teams winning when they play badly, there’s one hell of a tough run-in just around the corner and clearly performances like this won’t be good enough.