Manchester United moved three points clear of Liverpool at the top of the Premier League as Paul Pogba's second-half volley earned them a 1-0 win away to Burnley. United struggled throughout the contest to break down a disciplined Burnley side who looked more than ready to see out the storm at Turf Moor. Harry Maguire might have felt aggrieved that his back-post header was ruled out by referee Kevin Friend but the Clarets looked to be holding firm until Pogba's 71st-minute strike deflected off Matthew Lowton and into the Burnley net.
Having been denied by the officials in the first half Maguire had cause for relief in the second when VAR opted not to give Burnley a late penalty when a corner hit his hand.
Read on for the key talking points from United's victory.
Burnley make United play their way
The first half of this was slow, deliberate and tedious, pockmarked by fouls, annoyances and incidents to kill momentum. In short, it was just what Burnley wanted. There is more to their football than physicality but on nights like Tuesday, Sean Dyche's side would rather play a game of set pieces and slow ball than get involved in an open-ended game.
The likes of Johan Berg Gudmundsson and in particular Ashley Barnes were masters of drawing fouls that slowed the game down, the former on the receiving end of four fouls inside the first 45 minutes. Each was a valuable check on any momentum United might have been building and allowed the hosts to give Robbie Brady a chance to deliver with his left foot. Even when the ball didn't land on a Burnley head the Irish international invariably asked questions of the United backline with his set pieces.
From open play Gudmundsson and Matt Lowton executed their plan no less shrewdly, constantly looking for the crossf-ield delivery from the right that landed in between Eric Bailly and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. That avenue led to Burnley's best chance of the half, Barnes knocking the ball down just out of Chris Wood's reach.
In a way United rather played into Burnley's hands too. Solskjaer named a team, and in particular a midfield, that seemed designed to match the combative qualities of the hosts rather than force their vision of football onto the hosts. Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic were too sedentary a midfield duo at least in the first half (the former notably improved as the game wore on) whilst Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial found themselves stationed too far away from goal so that Edinson Cavani could get involved in a running battle with James Tarkowski and Ben Mee.
Meanwhile Bruno Fernandes kept taking long-range efforts that rarely tested Nick Pope, three of his first four efforts coming from outside the box and adding up to an expected goals value of just 0.15. It was just the half Burnley wanted.
Pogba bends the contest to his will
From the moment the second half began United were a more propulsive, energetic force. At the heart of their improvement was Pogba, as he rediscovered the form he has shown in recent weeks from his berth on the left wing. In that awkward position he has excelled, showing the confidence to take a man on, drive United forward and play a shrewd pass.
In the second half he took all that and tried it in the heart of the contest. A smart dart through the Burnley midfield in the 52nd minute set United up for the sort of attack that they rarely managed in the first half, one where they were not attacking a set defense. Chances kept coming to teammates from Pogba and Anthony Martial in particular ought to have done far better when his compatriot slipped him in behind the Clarets defense in the 81st minute, taking one more touch than necessary to allow Tarkowski to make the block.
His goal was a wonderful cocktail of those qualities that make Pogba a unique talent. Most of the credit went to the volley, truly struck even if it did clip Lowton's leg to take it past Pope. What went rather more unremarked upon was how Pogba had shown the strength, technique and composure to beat an onrushing Josh Brownhill to a header he flicked towards Fernandes. Immediately he was moving but not too fast, waiting for players on both sides to get set and looking for where the space would be from which he could swing this game.
VAR takes center stage
More often than not the debate over VAR is at best overblown, riven with spurious claims that it is taking the joy out of the sport because contentious decisions take time to reassess. And yet this game will undoubtedly have provided detractors with ammunition aplenty, so central was its role to proceedings.
An exceedingly lengthy referral when Brady brought down Edinson Cavani soon saw the officials at Stockley Park assess at tedious length whether the Ireland international was the last man or whether Ben Mee might have made it back in time only to then rewind the tape and flag up a clear foul by Luke Shaw on Gudmundsson that necessitated the on-pitch referee to make his way over to the monitor. Presumably that was to confirm whether the Manchester United left-back should get a red for his tackle. All this took place without any real communication from any official to confirm what was actually happening.
That remains one of the most curious aspects of VAR, that a system that could so easily bring clarity and accountability has instead left us with as many unexplained moments. Equally the intervention to deny Maguire a goal when he overpowered Erik Pieters at the back post is curious, a reminder of the subjectivity that is inherent within the Premier League guidelines. Replays suggested that the Manchester United captain had been firm but fair in winning the ball at the back post.
The question is whether the referee's error had been "clear and obvious" or whether there had been a "serious missed incident". Those are the Premier League's criteria for overturning decisions yet they are frustratingly vague, how wrong is wrong enough? Inevitably there must be some degree of personal judgement in these decisions but while those processes are carried out in silence it is hard to know how effectively VAR is doing its job.
Marcus Rashford: Stationed wide on the right, Rashford was a frustratingly peripheral figure in the contest until he delivered a cross into just the right landing spot for Pogba's excellent volley. RATING: 5
Josh Brownhill: Signed for just $12 million from Bristol City a year ago, the 25-year-old looked very much at home against such illustrious opposition. He has brought Burnley a verticality they have long missed from central areas but might have done more when the ball dropped to him for a late volley. RATING: 7
Premier League outlook
United had not previously topped a Premier League in the new year of a season since Sir Alex Ferguson's reign but that is just where they find themselves heading into Sunday's trip to Anfield, three points clear of their greatest rivals. Despite their recent upturn Burnley might be looking over their shoulder from 16th, five points ahead of 18th-placed Fulham having played a game more.