In this slump United have been shapeless, directionless, injury-plagued and forgetful of how to win. Not since Erik ten Hag’s misfiring unit reversed a 2-0 deficit to overcome Nottingham Forest 3-2 in late August have three points been theirs.
Not any more: this victory was ugly and unconvincing but the manager, correctly, did not care. “This was a must-win and we knew it,” he said. “The team spoke on the pitch. You could see the characters in the dressing room. Great goal, massive, brilliant pass, brilliant movement.”
It was. On his 200th United appearance, the classy Jonny Evans dropped a sweet left-footed ball into Fernandes, whose volley, from an acute angle along the right, was a ruthlessly executed picture of beauty.
Under the Saturday night lights Burnley got at United – often along the flanks. Marcus Rashford tracked Connor Roberts, gave up, then saw the No 14 drop in a cross that Zeki Amdouni headed down and André Onana dived right to steer away. Next came a surge on the left from the turbo-heeled Luca Koleosho, who had Diogo Dalot felling him and entering the book.
As has been the previous pattern United were easily breached. The next time Amdouni took aim it was from behind the visitors’ lines: Burnley’s centre-forward defeated Onana but not his left post and United survived.
Ten Hag shuffled his depleted pack once more and came up with Hannibal Mejbri as a No 10 and the 35-year-old Evans at centre-back – the Northern Irishman filling in for Lisandro Martínez, who was the latest United man to go down (to a minor, unspecified problem).
Mejbri twice played colleagues in: Rashford, who missed from near-in; and Rasmus Højlund, whose close control was clumsy, too. Evans’s first United start since a 1-0 win at Newcastle in March 2015 was first laced with disappointment when a header from Sergio Reguilón’s corner was chalked off by Tony Harrington after the referee examined the pitchside monitor.
This was correct as an offside Højlund impeded James Trafford (a scenario similar to Nathan Aké’s wrongly allowed goal against Fulham, when Manuel Akanji was in the Dane’s position) but the real story was how average United were.
In one phase copious passes were exchanged but a lack of imagination forced them back from Burnley territory to near goal where Onana was tapped to: the keeper hoofed upfield and the ball and moment were lost.
Fernandes’s strike was the antidote to this: a finish that connected with Evans’s chip over the home rearguard and arrowed past Trafford, to his right, to give United a half-time lead.
As a bedraggled band needing the succour of victory United faced a vital 45 minutes. Yet their aimless play meant Burnley remained a threat. Scott McTominay and Casemiro were ghosts, unable to control the visitors’ midfield, and the Dalot-Victor Lindelöf-Evans-Reguilón backline a half-decent home move away from being embarrassed.
Best, then, to attack, and good work from McTominay and Mejbri in Burnley’s area set up Dalot for a flashing ball across the turf Højlund failed to gamble on.
Yet McTominay’s next offering was a ludicrous Cruyff turn on the edge of his area straight into trouble, and Dalot’s a wild crossfield pass that went to a claret jersey and had Ten Hag stamping in fury.
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A better variation from United was a Rashford knock-down for Højlund that claimed a corner. But this came from a counter rather than a slick sequence of pass-and-move and with less than an hour gone United were already in a quasi-hanging-on mode. This invited Vincent Kompany’s men on and Evans’s bravery had him thwarting Jay Rodriguez while banging into Onana but each were fine.
By now Reguilón had been forced off. “He was ill but wanted to play, you see the spirit in the team,” Ten Hag explained.
A favoured pre-game song at Turf Moor is by Foo Fighters which has a line that runs, “it’s times like these you learn to live again”. United are just about doing so once more, but Burnley need reviving.
“Our moment will come,” Kompany said. It has to – quickly.