Who would have thought? It’s been eight games and eight wins in a row in all competitions for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with 22 goals scored in the process. Manchester United will be looking to make it nine straight wins under the Norwegian when they welcome Burnley to Old Trafford in the Premier League on Tuesday night.
Even in Solskjaer’s wildest dreams (and in mine too), the Norwegian would not have expected to be in this position when he replaced Jose Mourinho last month. Just a few weeks ago, Manchester United were an incredible 11 points behind Arsenal. Now, goal difference alone separates them and the race for the top four is again a reality for Solskjaer’s men.
United are enjoying their longest winning streak since a nine-game run two years ago. They have outscored opponents with a 22-5 difference during their recent run, with liberated midfielder Paul Pogba directly participating in nine of the goals, scoring five with four assists. Solskjaer has also picked up three goals from substitutes compared to the six Mourinho racked up in 24 matches before being sacked.
After Solskjaer took over, I tweeted that I was expecting several players to flourish under the new coach. Twelve’s algorithm tells us I was not wrong by much. The best players under Mourinho this season were Pogba, Matic, Lukaku, Lindelof, Young, Shaw and Rashford. In Solskjaer’s six Premier League games the situation has changed a bit. Instead of Lindelof being third best as a defender, we now have Pogba, Matic, Lukaku, Rashford, Herrera, Lingard and the Swede.
It shows how United went from negative to positive football where Herrera and Lingard are now playing the key part in Solskjaer’s tactical plan, while Pogba is habitually the best player but has added the blue line to his tally, which represents goals scored in Twelve’s algorithm.
The win against Arsenal in the FA Cup fourth-round tie on Friday showed just how far Manchester United have come since Jose Mourinho left the club. They were clearly the better side, as Solskjaer was again spot-on with his team selection and tactics.
The Norwegian utilized a 4-3-1-2 formation and followed almost the same blueprint which brought him a 1-0 victory at Tottenham on January 13. Again, the key in Solskjaer’s plan was Jesse Lingard who played in the hole underneath Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku. The England international bagged the second at Arsenal as both goals were set up by the Belgian international.
United’s front trio’s pressing was immense and they were defensively very important. Arsenal had so much possession in the first half but it was fallow. Unai Emery’s plan was to start attacks through his two deep midfielders – Xhaka & Torreira – but United’s midfielders didn’t give them enough space to be productive.
Every time Xhaka or Torreira had the ball, Lingard would press and either Lukaku or Sanchez would block the passing lane to the highly positioned full back. Once again, Solskjaer showed us deadly counter-attacking football as he positioned his three attackers so high in transition and that’s the way they scored two of their three goals against a fragile Arsenal defense.
Under Mourinho, you couldn’t see any of this. United were difficult to watch and were not picking up results. It has been a total flip since Solskjaer arrived and it could yet be a successful campaign for the club.
Burnley’s recent impressive run
But things have not only changed at Old Trafford. It seems like Burnley finally decided to take the fight against relegation in Premier League seriously, by picking up 10 points from their last four matches. They saw victories against West Ham United, Huddersfield Town and Fulham before earning an impressive point at Watford.
To compare, between the start of October and Boxing Day, Burnley picked up only one victory. Someone could argue they were lucky in the last four games but the underlying stats prove that to be an incorrect conclusion.
Twelve’s xG (expected goal) timeline shows us that Sean Dyche’s team totally outplayed both West Ham and Huddersfield and maybe deserved more goals, while at Watford they were very unlucky since they scored 1.88 xG against the host’s 0.97. The only exception is a win against Fulham where Ranieri’s men had better xG value, but only by 0.1.
So, what did Sean Dyche change to spark this impressive performance by the Clarets in recent weeks?
As was written in December here on Twelve, any team whose goalkeeper leads their attack rankings on Twelve’s algorithm is always going to struggle to create good chances. Guess what, the tables have turned.
A look at Burnley’s attack ranking in the last four matches shows Ashley Westwood on top, which is nothing new since he is leading this chart for the whole season. Again there is a goalkeeper in the top three spots, but at least it’s Tom Heaton instead of Joe Hart, which can also be considered as an important change in Burnley’s improved performance.
Has Sean Dyche found his x-factor?
But the guy I want to draw attention to is 19 year-old Dwight McNeil, who is Burnley’s fourth best player overall per Twelve’s algorithm in the last four matches and second in terms of attacking points. He recently signed a new four-and-a-half-year contract at Burnley that will extend his stay at Turf Moor until June 2023.
After making his debut during the final game of last season, McNeil has featured in ten matches for Burnley this campaign. The winger has started Burnley’s last four Premier League games, and scored his first senior goal against West Ham last month. Then he provided assists against Huddersfield and Fulham, and is proving to be Dyche’s X-factor in the relegation battle.
McNeil has played both on the right and left side, and in his 440 minutes he’s registered 2.86 shots per 90, 1.84 key passes per 90 and values of 1.21 and 1.72 of xG and xA respectively. As per WhoScored rating (7.29), Dwight McNeil scored more points than any other player aged 21 or under in the Premier League this season with at least five appearances to their name.
Dyche’s men will be confident of holding Manchester United off despite Saturday’s shellacking against Manchester City. Burnley will probably utilize their well-known ‘sitting deep and attacking via route one’ philosophy but Manchester United’s defensive line can be tested and has some clear issues despite recent results.
The Clarets are likely to be under pressure for large spells of the game but will get chances to test the stability of Solskjaer’s defence and must take opportunities when they arrive (and if they arrive) if they wish to avoid defeat. Set pieces could be a segment of the game where Burnley can try to cause some problems, but they will also need to find some semblance of control in the midfield to be able to get players up the pitch to find such opportunities. Sitting back and defending for 90 minutes would almost certainly lead to a defeat.
This is where McNeil comes into the story. It will be interesting to see how Dyche will use him to hurt United’s potential weak spot on the right side where he can pose a threat to Ashley Young or young Diogo Dalot.
United recorded a 2-0 win at Burnley in the reverse Premier League match earlier this season, but the points were shared in a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford last term. It is difficult to imagine Burnley stopping the United train on Tuesday night.
Prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Burnley