Tom Heaton’s heroics, paired with the dismissal of Ander Herrera, limited the impact of Manchester United’s second-half tactical rejig, ensuring that José Mourinho’s side paid for yet another anaemic first-half performance by dropping two points to Sean Dyche’s Burnley.
Perhaps sensing an opportunity to finally pick up points on the road, Dyche marked the return of Andre Gray by dispensing with the five-man midfield that was employed throughout the striker’s suspension. Gray partnered target man Sam Vokes up front in an ultra-compact, ultra-narrow, 4-4-2.
Hampered by a lack of width and penetrative running, a familiarly pedestrian United attack mostly failed to play through the Claret’s tightly-bound ten-man unit in the first-half.
With only Marcus Rashford – hardly a natural winger – hugging the touchline, and both full-backs Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian clearly under instruction to hold their positions, Burnley’s wide players were rarely drawn away from their central compatriots. Darmian’s late first-half penalty shout, for a foul by subtitute Jon Flanagan, represented a rare final-third foray from the Italian international.
The shared desire of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba to play between the lines was mostly a source of dysfunction for the hosts, but occasionally it bore fruit, with a handful of chances stemming from the overloading of Burnley central midfielder Dean Marney – most notably when the exceptional Heaton rushed off his line to prevent Ibrahimovic converting Mata’s 17th-minute through-ball.
United’s possession dominance, clocking in at 73%, did produce a double-figure corner tally however, which Daley Blind and Mata combined to waste with a string of woeful deliveries that failed to clear the aerially dominant Vokes at the near post.
The aerial battle was the only skirmish that Dyche’s combative side – never a genuine threat on the break – looked likely to win, and their pre-eminence in that area created the visitors’ only real opening of the game, when an unmarked Scott Arfield blazed over a 54th-minute free-kick that Michael Keane headed down for the Scot.
That let-off inspired the dismissed Mourinho to send word from the stands that he desired a reconfiguration into a 4-4-2 of his own, with the pacey Rashford partnering the languid Ibrahimovic up front.
With wide players Mata and Lingard continuing to gravitate towards the centre, and the full-backs finally committed forward to provide much-needed width, this 4-2-2-2-ish shape saw a much-improved United force two wonderful saves apiece from Heaton and the woodwork in quick succession.
Herrera’s marching orders stymied that momentum, forcing Mourinho into another tactical rejig, with substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Wayne Rooney asked to partner Pogba in a three-man midfield behind the retained two-man strikeforce in a 4-3-2.
Now, despite plying his trade in an undermanned outfit, Pogba looked transformed in the mezz’ala role to which he was accustomed at Juventus. Playing on the left of a central-midfield three, with no winger to cramp his style, the Frenchman drifted wide in the final minute to craft United’s best chance of the match with a glorious inswinging cross that Ibrahimovic somehow contrived to send wide from four yards at the back post.
Although they rode their luck throughout, taking into account Heaton’s 11 saves and Flanagan’s survival of both a penalty shout and a second yellow for deliberate handball, it’s difficult to begrudge a maiden away point to Dyche’s hyper-organised, hard-running troops – particularly centre-back Keane, who like Heaton, excelled on his return to an old stomping ground.
As for Mourinho, his first-half dismissal perhaps displays a frustration at the attacking dysfunction on display; dysfunction that only increases the suspicion that the Portuguese is still very far removed from hitting on how best to configure the expensive talent at his disposal into a cohesive unit.
That blow-up, and the unnecessary restraints placed on his full-backs against unambitious opposition, paint a picture of a man feeling the pressure. With no win in four league games, and boos ringing around an unhappy Old Trafford at full-time, that pressure is unlikely to abate any time soon.