Leicester City 2-2 Manchester United: Tactical Review


Leicester City (4-2-3-1): Schmeichel; Simpson, Morgan, Maguire, Fuchs; Ndidi, Iborra; Mahrez, Gray, Albrighton; Vardy

Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Lindelof, Smalling, Jones, Young; Pogba, Matic; Mata, Lingard, Martial; Lukaku

Claude Puel started with more or less his first choice team, which meant that Demarai Gray was preferred to Shinji Okazaki behind Jamie Vardy, and Vicente Iborra partnered Wilfried Ndidi in front of the defence.

Jose Mourinho was forced into playing Victor Lindelof at right-back, after Antonio Valencia and Matteo Darmian were both unavailable through injury. Juan Mata started in attacking midfield, and Paul Pogba captained the side on his return to league football following his red card against Arsenal.

Major tactical themes:

Lukaku’s movement vital to United’s attacking

Romelu Lukaku has copped a lot of stick in recent times, ever since his goals dried up. The Belgian had scored in his two previous league games, however, and had celebrated by, well, not celebrating; a possible response to the critics. While his goals are crucial, and ultimately what will define his United career, Lukaku’s movement and build-up play have been improving game-by-game, and his willingness to run the channels, or drop deep to combine with his attacking midfielders, gave oxygen to United’s attacks, creating space for the wide players or a player bursting from deep. This was probably Lukaku’s best game for the club so far, as he ran the channels tirelessly all night, pulling one of Harry Maguire or Wes Morgan out of position, and often dropping deep to lay off the ball before either storming into the space or allowing one of Lingard, Martial or Mata to do so. His sheer presence meant that at least one Leicester player was always in close proximity, thus opening space for others to exploit. He should even have had at least two assists, first setting up Anthony Martial with a pinpoint pass, only for the Frenchman to fire over with only Kasper Schmeichel to beat. Later, he sent Jesse Lingard through on goal as well; the Englishman even rounded Schmeichel but could only manage to hit the post, and then skied the rebound. United’s profligacy in front of goal cost them two points, but Lukaku was blameless.

Lukaku came short to combine with Lingard, playing a quick one-two which allowed Lingard to move into the space vacated by Harry Maguire as he tracked Lukaku. Lingard’s deflected shot was saved by Schmeichel, but it highlighted the effectiveness of Lukaku’s movement.

United’s fluid front four leave Leicester confused

In Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s exile from the first-team picture, Jose Mourinho seems to have found his primary attacking trident to support Lukaku. Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and one of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are usually the ones who start behind Lukaku, and this consistency of selection is allowing the front four to build an understanding. Lingard, in particular, has been fantastic in recent weeks playing as the #10, making extremely intelligent runs and chipping in with important goals, while Mata remains the only player apart from Pogba in the current first-team picture capable of genuine moments of inspiration. Against Leicester, it was the quartet’s movement that continually caught Leicester out. Mata would drift inside from his right-wing berth, sometimes popping up on the left flank, while Lingard would drop deep to pick up the ball from Matic and Pogba. Martial went central a couple of times, while Lukaku was constantly drifting into the right-hand channel. All of this meant that Leicester’s defence and midfield were unsure about their marking jobs. While they did sit deep and allow United to play in front of them, the Leicester full-backs in particular had poor games, and this was a direct result of them being unsure of whom to pick up at a given time, because the United attackers were varying their positions so much. Most of United’s chances came about due to this; Mata scored from just inside the box, from roughly where a #10 would have been, for the equalizer, while Martial was fouled near the right-hand edge of the box for Mata’s freekick goal. United’s attacking fluidity is based on this understanding between their front four, and Jose needs to ensure it continues.

Note the positions of United’s attackers; Martial is central, Lingard is on the right, while Mata is level with Pogba, almost in midfield. Pogba didn’t play the pass to Martial here, but Leicester have been dragged narrow by United’s movement here, and vulnerable to a well-timed run in behind.

Leicester counter-attack still devastating

Leicester have attempted to become a more expansive attacking side since their title win; however, the counter-attack remains their best method of attack. Claude Puel has attempted to marry the two styles, often playing Riyad Mahrez behind Jamie Vardy to inject a little more creativity, while ensuring his side retained pace on the break. Leicester’s opening goal here was almost like a repeat from their title-winning 2016 season, as a rapid transition once a United attack broke down allowed Mahrez to play a simple pass to Vardy, who was not going to miss from 10 yards. Vardy had sprinted at least 60 yards to make up the ground, having initially laid the ball off to Wilfried Ndidi well inside his own half. United were culpable for the goal as well; Ashley Young was caught too far up the pitch, while Phil Jones and Victor Lindelof were too slow to get back. However, Leicester’s best moments in the game came when they used the pace of their front four to counter, and as long as they can create a solid defensive platform, this approach should continue to reap dividends.

Vardy and Mahrez both have the entire United half to storm into, as Ashley Young is too far up the pitch, and Phil Jones has allowed Vardy to get goalside of him.