A manager learns a lot more about his team in defeat than in victory.
A late Victor Lindelof equaliser spared Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that indignity by saving the boss from his first loss as Manchester United’s caretaker - but that won’t mask what was the worst performance of his temporary reign, coming so soon after their best. That was at Arsenal on Friday.
In the process of the defeat, United became the first top-six side to fail to beat Burnley this season. And Burnley did what they’ve always done. That is: Settle in, resist and make the most of the precious few opportunities that come at the other end.
Sean Dyche knew how it would play out. And, presumably, Solskjaer knew how it would play out, too.
He deserves a good deal of credit for trying to dislodge Burnley’s backline from their regimented shape. If he could drag one or two of Burnley’s defensive players out of position, then gaps might well have appeared.
To that extent, he used Juan Mata behind a front two of Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford for parts of the first half. United folded into a sort of 3-4-1-2 when constructing spells of possession from the back, with Nemanja Matic splitting the centre backs and the full-backs pushing into the midfield.
There are fine margins which define the Manchester United manager’s job, as Jose Mourinho found out, and if Rashford had successfully managed to poke home his best chance of the first half then it could well have been a very different conversation afterwards.
He has been United’s outstanding player under Solskjaer but had an off-night here. That is natural; he is young and not a machine. The secret to success will be to find ways of winning matches when individual hot streaks end.
Solskjaer and United could not find it here, no matter how heavily they battered on the Burnley door come injury time. The temporary boss is going to have to analyse what went wrong, both in the concession of goals and in the inability to make all that possession count at the other end.
The wins at Tottenham and Arsenal showed that this team plays best and creates chances on the break. Solskjaer often harks back to a time when United ripped teams open on the counter; the attacking football that Sir Alex Ferguson promoted came quite often after a spell of possession for the opposition broke down.
Without an early breakthrough, however, this United team will struggle for convertible chances against reactive teams. In a sense, it’s not that different to Mourinho’s time here.
Often under-appreciated for the vibrancy, tempo and aggression he brings to the team, the Spaniard had the night off. In his place came Andreas Pereira.
He was one of those players that Mourinho underutilised, and he faced plenty of criticism for failing to offer the Brazilian-Belgian a chance. Regardless, it was clear against Burnley that he’s not quite ready for life at this level.
He gave the ball away repeatedly in the first half due to his tendency to pick a more difficult pass when other options were open - this informality cost United the first goal.
Pereira’s was the kind of individual error that had Mourinho hopping mad every week on the United sidelines. Solskjaer won’t roast a player in the press like his predecessor did, but the mistake will have been noted.
Mata didn’t really work as a right winger under Mourinho so it made sense to call him infield in a game like this, but United work best when they go quickly and there was a hint here that the pass to Mata might have been one too many.
He is a deliberate, methodical operator, but is a touch too slow in a team that’s trying to break out. The most fluid United looked was the chance created between Rashford and Lukaku, which the Englishman shoved wide.
Jesse Lingard was missed, another player who has done well for Solskjaer. The need to rotate is understandable with the scale of the matches in three competitions now looming – and United all of a sudden looking like they could make inroads in all three.
The decision to throw on Alexis Sanchez eventually did bear fruit but he is a better player in a counterattacking system than he is in one which probes around the edge of the box. He won the header which brought the equaliser, which brings us to the elephant in the room.
Why are Manchester United getting rid of Marouane Fellaini?
Their success in salvaging a point from this game came not from intricacy or clever attacking patterns. It came from lumping the ball into the box. He may be ungainly, but nobody does it better than the Belgian. United’s loss is “unnamed Chinese Super League club’s” gain.
Solskjaer has been bright and engaging in his dealings with the media so far, but one area in which he may well have been naïve is stating his desire for United to win every competition they enter.
Mauricio Pochettino has been criticised for managing the Tottenham expectations downwards, but Solskjaer must surely realise that this squad is not good enough to win the Champions League, the FA Cup and beat Chelsea and Arsenal to fourth place in the league.
It wasn’t good enough when Mourinho was in charge and that remains the same. Solskjaer has done brilliantly in revitalising the team and freshening up the feeling around Old Trafford. When Lindelof scored there was a mad dash to get the ball back and score the winner. The Stretford End – what was left of it – rose and demanded more.
We saw that in flashes during the Mourinho days, not least when they recovered to beat Newcastle here earlier in the season. Again, that was a case of rescuing a situation and correcting mistakes made prior. Not much has changed. United players still make mistakes and the team remains committed enough to get itself out of trouble.
You might recall it was December 2017 the last time Burnley came to Old Trafford. That day, as this, United fought back from two down to salvage a draw.
What can we say about his team? No worse? Any better?