Life without Zlatan Ibrahimovic might contain less fun and less drama but it might actually be rather more successful.
Manchester United’s last two league games without him have both been won 2-0 and this game in the soft April sunshine was the kind of effortless victory in third gear that the club used to produce in its pomp.
United go into Thursday’s Manchester derby a point behind City and in this mood they may not need to win the Europa League to qualify for the Champions League. This was their 23rd unbeaten game in the Premier League.
Burnley, five points off a relegation place, are by contrast looking over their shoulder. They came into this game with a better home record than Manchester United and must have had ambitions of beating them at Turf Moor for only the second time since 1968. They produced relatively little and when they did Andre Gray, in particular, found Eric Bailly at the heart of the Manchester United defence in supreme form.
United warmed up with their players wearing tracksuits bearing the names of the two who had suffered grievous cruciate ligament injuries against Anderlecht on Thursday night. The loss of Marcos Rojo, however painful, does not require United to adjust the way they play football. Ibrahimovic’s absence does.
It sounds horribly cruel when a double cruciate tear must call into question one of the great football careers but first against Chelsea and now at Burnley, Manchester United look a more fluid, fast and dangerous unit without Ibrahimovic.
Because he scored so often, because he had a relationship with Mourinho from their time at Internazionale and because Zlatan is unquestionably a star, he played every minute of every Premier League game he was selected for. He was also a 35-year-old target man with all that implies.
It is debatable whether Manchester United would have beaten Chelsea or Burnley so comprehensively had Ibrahimovic been playing. In his absence, Mourinho selected not Marcus Rashford, who had electrified Old Trafford against Chelsea and Anderlecht, but was presumably being rested for Thursday’s Manchester derby. He came on midway through the second half when the afternoon seemed already won.
Instead, United’s attack was led by two men whose relationship with their manager has been at best indifferent, Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial. Both scored goals on the counter-attack that would have hard to imagine with Zlatan spearheading the forward line.
The first was a breathtaking counter-attack, one of the moves of Manchester United’s season. It began deep in their own half as Martial took the ball away from Joey Barton at what for the 34-year-old midfielder must have been lung-stretching speed.
Martial, breaking at pace, fed the ball to Ander Herrera and sprinted through to take the return. At Old Trafford in October, Tom Heaton had made 11 high-class saves in the Burnley goal to earn his side a point. He had no chance with this one. It was Martial’s 25th for Manchester United and as such triggered a further £8.5m payment to Monaco, who have done rather well without him.
The second was Rooney as an opportunist, pouncing as Heaton blocked Martial’s shot after some fine work from Paul Pogba. Rooney clipped the ball through Michael Keane’s legs for his third league goal of the season and his first since breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s club goalscoring record at Stoke in January. It was the first league game this year that Manchester United’s captain has started and finished. Despite his goal here, you wonder how many more of those there will be.
Burnley (4-4-2): Heaton; Lowton, Keane, Mee (Tarkowski ht), Ward; Boyd (Gudmundsson 62), Hendrick, Barton, Brady; Barnes (Agyei 75), Gray.
Substitutes not used: Pope, Flanagan, Defour, Westwood.
Manchester United (4-3-3): De Gea; Young, Bailly, Blind, Darmian; Herrera, Fellaini, Pogba (Carrick 90); Lingard (Rashford 69), Martial (Mkhitaryan 79), Rooney.
Substitutes not used: Romero, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe.
Referee: A Taylor