MANCHESTER, February 12- Manchester United defender Chris Smalling admitted his team’s first-half performance had been unacceptable after they overcame Burnley 3-1 to reclaim third place in the Premier League.
The centre-back scored two goals, the first within 22 seconds of coming on as a fifth-minute substitute, but Louis van Gaal’s side were outplayed for most of Wednesday’s first half by their relegation-threatened visitors.
“The first half, we have to look at ourselves and make sure it never happens again,” said Smalling.
“Obviously, it’s a good run we’re on at the moment, but the manager just said in there that the first half was unacceptable and I think all the players know that.
“If we can keep winning games playing that badly, then it shows that when we do play well it will all click and there will be much better performances at Old Trafford, that’s for sure.
“It wasn’t a 3-1 scoreline game, especially the first half. We let ourselves down from one to 11. We’ve got to play much better.”
United have now lost just once in 18 games, despite disquiet among fans about their style of play and the much-publicised allegation that they adopted a ‘long-ball’ approach in Sunday’s 1-1 draw at West Ham United.
But they required two set-piece goals from Smalling, either side of a Danny Ings equaliser, and a late Robin van Persie penalty to see off Sean Dyche’s battling side.
“It was pretty unreal,” said Smalling of his first ever two-goal performance.
“I was quite fortunate. When you come on as a defender, it’s never easy. But if you have a corner, it puts you on the front foot straight away and I was lucky I got free.”
– Fan displeasure ‘a concern’ –
Although Van Gaal was also critical of his side’s first-half display, he was defensive in response to claims from journalists that his players are generally not performing well.
“I am not with your analysis,” said the Dutchman, who had produced an illustrated four-page dossier at his pre-game press conference to rebut West Ham manager Sam Allardyce’s claims about United’s style.
“You are assuming we are not playing well. I have only said that this match was not good and we have played now 16 or 17 matches with only one loss and with a lot of goals in favour, so I don’t think that every match is not attractive and that we are not playing attacking football.
“I don’t agree with you, but today you are right. We are already for how many weeks in the top four? You can look at the table. Not one week. How many, 10 weeks? We are still third or fourth. Ten weeks already.”
However, Van Gaal did admit to concern over the fact that United’s supporters seemed displeased with many aspects of the performance, especially with co-owners Avi and Joel Glazer making rare Old Trafford appearances.
“Yes, that is a concern because we are playing for the fans,” he said. “The fans are the most important part of the club. They keep the club living, but they also applaud. Always in matches 90 minutes, not 45.
“In the Netherlands they say, ‘When you win when you are playing bad, how will it be when you’re playing good?’ I think that’s the end of our conversation!”
Although they left Manchester without a point, second-bottom Burnley departed with many admirers, especially for their forward Ings, who was superb in a losing cause.
“He was sensational,” said Dyche. “He was first-class. People are making noises about England. I have tried to play it down, but but I can see why after tonight (Wednesday). He is a very, very talented player.
“He was excellent Sunday (in a 2-2 draw against West Bromwich Albion) and excellent today. His movement, his quality. He is a fantastic young man as well.”