Manchester United had won their first two games by a combined score of 8-0, but many felt that this game was their first real test of the season. United struggled to break down a dogged Leicester side (when has a sentence like that been written before?), but despite missing a penalty in the second half, they managed to score twice and keep another clean sheet to put themselves back on top of the table.
United’s only change for this game was the inclusion in the starting eleven of Anthony Martial, after his important contributions in the first two victories. Rashford was the man sacrificed; he had contributed well in both the games, but his end product was slightly lacking against Swansea and Martial had done enough to deserve a chance to start. Leicester were lined up in their preferred 4-4-2 formation, perfectly happy to sit deep and try to find Vardy on the break over the top.
The game started rather slowly. Leicester, like Swansea and West Ham before them, sat incredibly deep from the beginning. Their ‘Blue Wall’ was restricting the space in the centre of the field and continually forced United out wide. Mata, Martial and Mkhitaryan were attempting to get close to each other to link up, but the sheer number of players occupying that space meant that was proving impossible. United would have hoped that once the ball had been forced wide, the delivery from the full backs would cause Leicester some trouble. Sadly, Valencia and Blind rarely managed a cross that Maguire and Morgan struggled to deal with. The two giant centre backs played incredibly well and largely kept Lukaku quiet during the game.
United had the ball in the net on 20 minutes, with Mata finishing after Schmeichel saved a Lukaku shot from the edge of the area. The assistant’s call was correct, replays revealed that Mata’s foot was offside, but it was so close that no one could have accused the linesman of making a mistake had he not flagged. In fact, there is an argument that the call was so close, that the linesman should have played an advantage to the attacker as the rulebook states.
After the disallowed goal, United appeared to take off their shackles and unleashed a flurry of attacks. Their nearest chance to a legitimate goal came from a beautifully floated Martial cross that landed on Pogba’s outstretched boot at the back post. The ball skimmed across the ground and agonisingly wide of the Foxes’ goal. Then, a nice one-two between Lukaku and Mata resulted in a decent curled attempt that Schmeichel pawed wide. Pogba then began peppering the goal with a bombardment of long range efforts, unfortunately only one landing on target, the rest not troubling the keeper.
United had dominated the first half but as the second half started that familiar feeling of dread and panic was descending on the stadium. Before it could really take a hold of the fans, United were awarded a penalty after a Danny Simpson handball off an Anthony Martial cross. As Lukaku picked up the ball and headed to the spot, absolutely no one should have been surprised by what happened next. The cosmos had already decided. The Belgian shot to Schmeichel’s right, just high enough for him to easily save it away. It felt as if it was going to be one of those games for United, another draw at home to a team they should really beat.
Mahrez was beginning to scare the United defence, the main component of the few counter attacks Leicester managed, only for Jones and De Gea to thwart him. United’s back four looked impressive in defence yet again, Bailly and Jones able to stunt Mahrez in the United penalty area and making Vardy look like the non-league player he used to be.
United still weren’t looking like they were going to break through. On 66 minutes, Mourinho introduced Rashford for Juan Mata, a substitution that changed the game. A Mkhitaryan corner a few moments later landed at the feet of the criminally unmarked Mancunian, who kicked it into the ground, off the keeper’s fingers and into the roof of the net. Relief spilled across Old Trafford, it very much felt as if the mission had been accomplished. Rashford hadn’t even attempted to find space, instead he remained stationary in the opposition box as Leicester simply decided not to mark him. Vardy had pointed to alert his teammates that the United youngster was stood unaccompanied in their box, but thought better of actually attempting to pick him up himself.
There’s an argument to be made that the United side at that point should have been the eleven to start the game. Rashford, Martial, Mkhitaryan and Lukaku is a terrifying front four; pace, power and creativity whilst also equipped with the work rate to cover defensively. It’s not clear why Mourinho is so committed to the idea of starting Mata every game, but Rashford’s cameo at the end of the game showed that he offers much more than pace in behind. He has the clever movement Mata is so revered for, as well as the ability to pick a pass and beat a man. He and Martial might have done enough to show they should start away at Stoke together.
Immediately after the goal, Mourinho made his second change of the game, removing Mkhitaryan for Fellaini. The Belgian was brought on to be a destructive force in the middle of the park, a task he achieved, yet also caused United to lose their stranglehold on possession. Herrera must be wondering what he has to do to get on the field, the game was poised for him to arrive and harry Leicester to begin counter attacks. Instead, Mourinho turned to his favourite defensive substitution.
With ten minutes to go, United landed the killing blow to Leicester, with the unlikeliest of goalscorers, Fellaini’s thigh. Lingard (on for Martial) made a beautiful arcing run off the back of the Leicester defence. Rashford slipped the ball down the left flank for his fellow academy graduate, who turned back onto his right foot and aimed a shot at the far post. Fellaini, who was later revealed to be in a marginally offside position, tilted his thigh towards the ball and diverted it beyond Schmeichel. Game, set and match.
There was still time for United to have a scare, Demari Gray managing to fizz a cross behind United’s back four to the edge of the six yard box. Andy King had managed to ghost unmarked into the area and looked certain to slot home. Somehow, De Gea spread himself big and blocked the shot away. The Spaniard looked as shocked as everyone else but managed to hold onto a third consecutive clean sheet.
This game was United’s first test against a team that shouldn’t be involved in a relegation scrap. Although they struggled to break Leicester down for large parts of the game, United eventually managed to break the deadlock and then get an extra goal to kill the game off. United never looked like losing the game, they completely nullified Leicester’s attacking threat, it was just a question of whether or not they would score. Last season they would have drawn this game, this season they won 2-0 without ever really looking in trouble. Is this the difference between 6th and a title challenge? 3 games, 10-0, top of the table. United look favourites so far.