Burnley 0 - Man United 1: Before Alexis Sanchez has even set foot on the hallowed Old Trafford turf, the Chile international forward appears to have had an impact on Manchester United and their bid to pose a long-term challenge to Manchester City.
The Arsenal striker’s move to United, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan making the opposite journey, has coincided with United’s French forward Anthony Martial starting 2018 with his richest run of form since signing from Monaco for £36 million (€40m) two and a half years ago.
His winning goal at Turf Moor on Saturday was another magnificent, instinctive finish and meant he has scored in three straight league games for the first time in his United career.
“Sometimes you have to hold your hands up,” said admiring Burnley manager Sean Dyche. “I have seen it back and he looks for the gap and he finds the gap in the top corner.
“I think there is often a reason why those footballers move to Man Utd for 30 million quid, there is often a reason for that.”
A mere £30 million? On such form, and given that his three goals have helped United to three victories in those games, £30 million now looks a bargain.
And while it may be pure coincidence, of course, the fact that Martial’s most dominant spell of form coincides with the Sanchez bid suggests the French youngster is already responding to the competition.
“It was brilliant, he’s on fire at the minute,” said team-mate Chris Smalling. “As soon as Phil Bardsley was on a yellow card, the instructions were just to give him the ball as early as we could because when he’s running at people he’s a danger.
“All year, him and Marcus Rashford have been playing on the left and, to be fair, both have chipped in with goals and assists. It’s great for us that we’ve got such a great attacking flair.”
Attacking flair is something United will soon welcome even more of in the form of Sanchez, who seemed destined for league leaders and rivals City until Mourinho hijacked that deal.
Not surprisingly, his future team-mates were not tempting fate by talking about Sanchez but Smalling could not help breaking into a smile at the prospect of having him in the same team.
“I’m not sure. We all know it’s probably close,” he said. “But it’s not done until it’s done. Any new additions that can strengthen our squad would be welcome.”
The win actually cut City’s lead at the top of the table to single figures — for a couple of hours at least, until the Blues beat Newcastle — for the first time since the start of December when Pep Guardiola masterminded an impressive derby win at Old Trafford.
But given the way his team has started the new year, and with Sanchez probably just days away from his United debut, Smalling and his team-mates have not given up the chance to turn up the pressure, even if only for a few hours here and there.
“When we play on a Sunday, we’re well aware of watching Soccer Saturday and all the scores,” said Smalling. “It is a little blow if you see all the teams around you winning, so we can only do our job. We’ve all been there where leads have dwindled and teams have been caught.
“There is still a big points gap and we just need to make sure we win our games because if we don’t, then there’s no point even talking about it.
“If we can be in with a shout towards the end of the season, that’s when nerves can creep in. Hopefully, come those last few games, we can be there or thereabouts.”
For all United’s attacking prowess, however, the foundation for their recent improvements have, true to Mourinho form, been based at the other end of the field.
Smalling is starting to rediscover his form, alongside fellow England international Phil Jones, in the heart of a United defence that has not conceded a goal since drawing with Burnley 2-2 on St Stephen’s Day — a run of 504 minutes.
“It’s comfortable. It’s great playing alongside Phil,” he added.
“While all the boys are running hard for us at the front, if we can stop those goals, it’s brilliant.
“It’s good that as a team we can shut up shop and not give the other team too many chances, knowing that more often than not we’re going to go up the other end and score because certain teams can only keep us out for so long.”
Defeat for Burnley made it eight games since Sean Dyche’s side has tasted victory although the Clarets manager drew encouragement from the latest in a series of credible performances against supposedly more illustrious opposition.
“The key for me is performances. If we keep performing like that then I think we will look after ourselves,” he said.
“United’s ideas this season are completely different to Burnley’s. We are in front of what everyone thinks we are about.
“They are still a side that is wanting to win the League and the Champions League and all that sort of stuff — it’s a different model, a whole different ball game to what we are here. In our world we are definitely moving forward.”
Pope 7; Bardsley 5, Tarkowski 8, Mee 7, Taylor 6; Gudmundsson 6, Cork 6, Defour 5, Arfield 5 (Nkoudou 80, 6); Hendrick 5 (Vokes 80, 5); Barnes 6 (Wells 89). S
Subs not used:
Lindegaard, Lowton, Westwood, Long.
MAN UTD (4–1-4-1):
De Gea 6; Valencia 6, Smalling 7, Jones 8, Young 7; Matic 7; Mata 7 (Fellaini 71, 6), Lingard 7 (Rashford 79, 7), Pogba 8, Martial 9 (Herrera 90); Lukaku 8.
Subs not used:
Romero, Rojo, Shaw, McTominay.
M Dean 7.
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