Just rewind to last year and think about that thrashing against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford – the Manchester United of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was a laughing stock and their defence had been pathetic. With the likes of Liverpool, a changed Everton under Carlo Ancelotti, Frank Lampard’s expensive Chelsea, and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City around, the Red Devils only expected to survive.
Fast forward to January 12, 2021 – Manchester United are top of the Premier League at this stage of the season for the first time since the 2012-13 campaign which they ended by claiming a 20th title.
A Paul Pogba volley was enough to secure a much needed Manchester United win away at Burnley.
The last time Manchester United were top of the table after New Years Day was 2013.
That season…? pic.twitter.com/Dbtmv6W9jw
— B/R Football (@brfootball) January 12, 2021
The upturn in United’s fortunes under Ole Gunnar Solskjær is further underlined by the changed circumstances as they head to Anfield on Sunday: before last term’s corresponding fixture United were 27 points behind.
On a cold night and freezing night with the odds stacked against the Red Devils, the determination of Ole’s men deserves the accolade.
Until the decisive finish by Pogba Manchester United struggled to gain momentum despite dominating the possession.
Attacks faltered before being built and so the contest was stuck in the middle third.
The hosts went close early on when Eric Bailly made a key block to divert Chris Wood’s effort away from David de Gea’s goal.
When Fernandes, Nemanja Matic, and Luke Shaw combined the latter released a cross from the left which Anthony Martial dummied, and suddenly Fernandes had sight of goal. His shot went straight into the hands of Pope but this was better.
As good was a move on the other side.
Manchester United—36 pts
Next up ? pic.twitter.com/Yl9uphPoMH
— B/R Football (@brfootball) January 12, 2021
This time Rashford tapped the ball to Fernandes and he chipped it behind Martial, whose overhead volley was again saved by Pope.
Then VAR took the center stage.
Shaw challenged Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Fernandes took over, hitting a 40-yard pass into Edinson Cavani, who was felled by Robbie Brady as he approached the Burnley box.
Kevin Friend, the referee, blew for a foul and showed a yellow card to Brady.
VAR inspected both incidents and then instructed Friend to do the same at the pitchside monitor. He did so and decided to chalk off Brady’s booking and instead issue Shaw with a yellow card for his tackle on Gudmundsson, the left-back taking his leg after the ball.
Burnley attempted to race back downfield to take a quick free-kick but were not allowed to and, when finally executing it, failed to capitalize.
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— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 12, 2021
There was further confusion when Harry Maguire, whose header beat Pope, had the “goal” ruled out for pushing Erik Pieters when jumping.
Harry had not impeded the opponent so his strike was surely legitimate.
Neither the shoulders of Manchester United dropped nor did their feet sink in the quicksand – they kept moving their feet and advanced forward to break the deadlock.
A deflected shot from Fernandes resulted in a corner showing as much intent as Pogba surge that scattered claret shirts around him. This created space for Martial to cross from the left – the ball teed up for Cavani at point-blank range but he kicked inaccurately.
Fernandes let go one from the long-range. Martial took the ball off Cavani’s toe, but he stayed offside when bearing down on Pope. Then Rashford unloaded loosely at near-range.
Manchester United were creating the pressure.
? All the action from Tuesday's battle at Burnley ?
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) January 13, 2021
Rashford had been enduring a quiet evening out on the right until he picked out Pogba at the edge of the penalty area just as it began to look like United would have to settle for a draw.
Pogba latched on to it and superbly volleyed in, with a deflection off Matthew Lowton ensuring Pope was powerless to keep it out.
Pogba’s commitment has always been under the scanner, but last night he marshaled the midfield and when things looked lost, he stepped up to set the tempo and ensured three points and the top place. His movement, range of passing, and, perhaps most importantly, a vision made him a complete package.
He had the most passes, the most touches, won the most fouls, and topped the charts for duels. He was immense all over the pitch, in every aspect of his game.
The Liverpool match will be a huge test for United, but they go into the game on top of the table with their superb away form – seven wins and one draw from eight top-flight games – continuing.
Their sixth straight win at Turf Moor was hard-fought but deserved.