Paul Pogba’s second-half volley was enough to give Manchester United victory at Burnley and send them three points clear at the top of the Premier League.
United dominated a contest in which Burnley failed to register a single shot on target until stoppage time.
But they were struggling to make a breakthrough until Marcus Rashford picked Pogba out with an excellent cross to the edge of the area.
The Frenchman’s connection was perfect, although it took a deflection off Matthew Lowton to ensure the ball went past Nick Pope and into the Burnley net.
Although Burnley had three decent chances in a frantic ending, United secured the win to head the table after 17 rounds of matches.
It is the first time that has happened this many games into the season since December 2012, in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final, title-winning campaign.
New territory for post-Ferguson United
In the seven seasons since Ferguson retired, United have never been higher than second at this stage of the season.
But they were already well adrift of Manchester City during that 2017-18 campaign under Jose Mourinho.
Surprisingly, in points terms, the nearest they have been to the top at this stage was under David Moyes, when they were eighth but only eight points behind the leaders after 17 games.
They made hard work of their ninth win in 11 Premier League games. On his return from a three-match ban, Edinson Cavani wasted two excellent chances and Bruno Fernandes fired a first-half effort straight at Nick Pope.
Anthony Martial was off target with two first-half chances before failing to convert in the final seconds after he had been sent clean through.
None of this matters now though and, while manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was right to say nobody remembers what the table looks like in January, Pogba’s clenched fist as Burnley’s last chance went begging indicated the importance of these three points.
VAR gets in the way
It is not often Solskjaer gets so angry on the touchline that he is reduced to swearing.
But the Norwegian could not help himself after one of those bizarre 10-minute periods that leaves you wondering what has happened to that simple game we fell in love with as kids.
Within the period of one passage of play, Luke Shaw left Johann Gudmundsson on the deck with a strong challenge, which ended with the full-back sliding into the Icelandic midfielder’s leg. Play swiftly moved to the other end, where Cavani was chopped down by Robbie Brady when he seemed to be running through on goal.
Video assistant referee Stuart Atwell looked at both incidents, decided the first was not a red card and the second was, but as they were both part of the same phase of play, told referee Kevin Friend to check the monitor, which he did, before showing Shaw a yellow card.
The whole process, from the Shaw tackle to the free-kick being taken, took six minutes. And barely had that episode been concluded than Harry Maguire headed home from an acute angle and turned away to celebrate, only to find the effort had been ruled out for the type of foul on Erik Peters that former England forward Peter Crouch claimed on social media would have cancelled out the majority of his 108 league goals had it applied to him.
However, if United felt those decisions had gone against them, they were might have benefited from one as the clock ticked down and Atwell decided Maguire had not handled in a goalmouth melee, when the call could easily have gone the other way.
Battling Burnley need investment
New Burnley owner Alan Pace was absent from what would have been his first Premier League game since his ALK Capital company assumed control of the Clarets last month.
The American was isolating at home after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus.
He will have been heartened by Burnley’s late flurry as Josh Brownhill, Matej Vydra and James Tarkowski all threatened. But with his team five points above the relegation zone, Mace needs to come good on promises to invest in Sean Dyche’s squad during this month’s transfer window.
While reinforcements would be welcome, the Clarets displayed all the stubborn qualities and discipline that has seen them recently move clear of the bottom three.
If not for the moment of Pogba quality, their gritty approach almost yielded another valuable point after collecting 10 from a possible 12 in the past four games at home before the visit of the Red Devils.
Defeat, just their second in eight league and cup matches, leaves them 16th in the table.
‘It’s good times’ – what the managers said
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to BBC Sport: “I’m very pleased of course. Any time you get three points you are happy. We had to dig in and earn it and we did.
“I’ve not seen the fouls but it must be right – the referee went over to look at it. The disallowed goal – that’s a mistake, we have to be honest.
“The goal was top, great execution and style. Paul Pogba really played well tonight. It would have been easier for us, we should have got the second goal but we don’t do it the easy way.
“We feel very confident going into games. Away from home we have really done well. We have to believe in ourselves and we do. We’ve done a great job, it’s good times. It’s a test against the champions [Liverpool on Sunday] who have been fantastic, a great test for us.”
Burnley manager Sean Dyche to Match of the Day: “It was a decent performance against a top side on decent form. We are growing into our season. Performances and results have improved.
“I’m a fan of VAR, and it will streamline over time but that’s a tricky one with incidents at both ends. He had to look at both. We want it to be quicker but on that one it’s not easy. It was a foul by Luke Shaw – the modern game would suggest you are in trouble with that one.
“United came out second half with more tempo and they have spells when they will do that. They scored a very good goal via a deflection and Pope would save it otherwise. The reaction was terrific.
“These players give everything and you can see that at the end when we were creating chances and half chances.”
Best of the stats
- This is the first time Manchester United have ended the day top of the Premier League table, having played as many as 17 games, since the final day of their title-winning campaign in 2012-13 under Sir Alex Ferguson.
- Manchester United have kept their first away clean sheet of the season in the Premier League, conceding 11 goals in their previous seven matches on the road in this campaign.
- Burnley have scored just one goal in their past 10 home league games against Manchester United, compared to 20 in their previous 10 games versus the Red Devils at Turf Moor.
- Burnley have won just one of their past 26 Premier League home games against the ‘big six’ sides (D4 L21), a 2-1 victory over Tottenham in February 2019.
- Burnley failed to get a single shot on target against United, the second time they’ve not found the target in a Premier League game this season – the other against Chelsea in October.
- Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford has been directly involved in 11 goals in his past 14 Premier League appearances (six goals, five assists).
Burnley are next in action against West Ham at London Stadium on Saturday, 16 January (15:00 GMT). Manchester United play the following day in a top-of-the-table clash with Liverpool at Anfield (16:30 GMT).
- 18WestwoodBooked at 62mins
- 12BradySubstituted forMcNeilat 65′minutes
- 9WoodSubstituted forVydraat 80′minutes
- 10BarnesSubstituted forRodriguezat 88′minutes
- 1de Gea
- 23ShawBooked at 32mins
- 10RashfordSubstituted forGreenwoodat 80′minutes
- 18Bruno FernandesBooked at 45minsSubstituted forMcTominayat 89′minutes
- 9MartialSubstituted forTuanzebeat 90+5′minutes
- 34van de Beek
Match ends, Burnley 0, Manchester United 1.
Second Half ends, Burnley 0, Manchester United 1.
Foul by Jay Rodriguez (Burnley).
Harry Maguire (Manchester United) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Attempt missed. Matej Vydra (Burnley) right footed shot from the left side of the box is high and wide to the right.
Substitution, Manchester United. Axel Tuanzebe replaces Anthony Martial.
Attempt saved. Anthony Martial (Manchester United) right footed shot from the centre of the box is saved in the centre of the goal. Assisted by Edinson Cavani.
Attempt blocked. James Tarkowski (Burnley) left footed shot from the centre of the box is blocked.
Jóhann Gudmundsson (Burnley) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Anthony Martial (Manchester United).
Foul by James Tarkowski (Burnley).
Paul Pogba (Manchester United) wins a free kick on the left wing.
Substitution, Manchester United. Scott McTominay replaces Bruno Fernandes.
VAR Decision: No Penalty Burnley.
Attempt missed. Matej Vydra (Burnley) left footed shot from the centre of the box is too high. Assisted by Ben Mee following a corner.
Substitution, Burnley. Jay Rodriguez replaces Ashley Barnes.
Corner, Burnley. Conceded by Eric Bailly.
Attempt blocked. Matej Vydra (Burnley) right footed shot from the right side of the box is blocked.
Offside, Burnley. Erik Pieters tries a through ball, but Ben Mee is caught offside.
Attempt missed. James Tarkowski (Burnley) header from the left side of the box misses to the left. Assisted by Josh Brownhill following a set piece situation.