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.
For this they can thank Paul Pogba, the midfielder crowning a fine display with a sweet 71st-minute winner. This came when the Frenchman won an initial flick-on, the ball went to Bruno Fernandes and he found Marcus Rashford along the right. The No 10 crossed and there was Pogba to smash in a volley that beat Nick Pope via a Matthew Lowton deflection.
Victory means United go to 36 points and overtake Liverpool, with 33 – this having last been achieved after the same number of games when beating Sunderland 3-1 on 15 December 2012 under Sir Alex Ferguson.
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.
A delighted Solskjær stated that meeting will be difficult and praised Pogba. “He is a good character in the dressing room, he is always the one the lads look to and he’s a world champion of course. He’s at his best at the moment,” the manager said.
Pogba said: “ I am always happy when I win and we are top [but] there is still a long way to go, there are big games coming up so we have to focus on that.”
This was a victory that rewarded unerring determination, a theme of United’s season. Until Pogba’s effervescence they struggled to find a telling rhythm despite dominating. Attacks faltered before being built and so the contest was stuck in the middle third: precisely where Burnley wanted it.
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. This time Rashford tapped the ball to Fernandes and he chipped it behind Martial, whose overhead volley was again saved by Pope.
Complacency appeared United’s greatest threat. Fernandes fell prey to this when a heavy touch allowed Lowton to pickpocket him – Burnley swept forward but Chris Wood’s attempt was blocked by Eric Bailly.
A bitty contest next had two moments of VAR intrigue. 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 issued Brady with a yellow card.
VAR inspected both incidents, 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. United were upset, Burnley tried to race back downfield to take a quick free-kick but were not allowed to and, when finally executing it, failed to capitalise.
There was further confusion when Harry Maguire, whose header beat Pope, had the “goal” ruled out for pushing Erik Pieters when jumping. This appeared harsh: United’s captain had not impeded the opponent so his strike was surely legal.
This is where Solskjær’s men showed character: they refused to sulk and dug in, starting the second half on level terms and thus on course for the point required to move above Liverpool. Burnley had offered close to zero threat yet could still hope of nicking a goal and an unlikely win.
United continued to set the pattern, a deflected Fernandes shot that yielded a corner showing as much intent as a buccaneering Pogba surge that scattered claret shirts around him. This created space for Martial to cross from the left: here was the contest’s clearest chance – the ball teed up for Cavani at point-blank range but the normally lethal No 7 mis-kicked and Sean Dyche’s side escaped.
The miss illustrated a lack of composure where it counted from United. Fernandes let go a pea-roller from long range. Martial took the ball off Cavani’s toes in the area to inadvertently thwart the Uruguayan. The Frenchman strayed offside when bearing down on Pope. Then Rashford unloaded loosely at near-range.
But now came Pogba’s sublime finish and a late rearguard effort from United. Martial may have limped off but this ended as an important night for Solskjær’s emerging side. There is a long way to go but they are in the perfect position to try to reach the promised land of a 21st championship.