MANCHESTER UNITED vs LEICESTER CITY
01.05.2016

In the build-up to this game for the fawning media it was all about Leicester City and a chance for them to clinch the title at Old Trafford. Of course for United it was all about United and with a cup final appearance secured, it was all about the push for a Champions League qualifying place. With the teams in third and fourth place due to play each other a week later a win was a must.

PERSONNEL

In: Valencia.
Out: Fosu-Mensah.

KEY POINTS

  • In many ways this game played out as expected. United dominating possession and Leicester looking to hit United with quick counter attacks. But there subtle points of interest.
  • Without Vardy United were prepared to take the initiative and push higher than they perhaps would have done with him in the team. This worked for but United they faded in the second half and Leicester grew into the game.
  • Why were United not more assertive in the first half when they were on top?
  • United attacked with width, but the ball into the box was either delayed or poor, sometimes both meaning that United did not make the most of their attacking opportunities.
  • Rooney had a good game; Fellaini started well but seemed to struggle as United lost their way in the second half. Leicester changed their approach in the second half playing fewer long passes and attempting to develop play more progressively through the middle of the pitch. Did this work for them? Not completely.

FIRST HALF

As is often the case these days United started this game being assertive and playing at a good tempo. They pushed forward and placed Leicester under some pressure. Leicester worked hard to keep United at bay but United pressed Leicester high up the pitch and both full backs pushed on, Valencia on the left in support of Lingard and Rojo in support of Martial on the left. Something which doesn’t happen that often is that United scored.

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United in the first half and Antonio Valencia returning to the side

The goal came after 14 minutes. United worked the ball out wide to Valencia on the right he took his time, stepped inside the right back and flicked a cross across the box with the outside of his boot. Everyone, including Rashford, missed it and it reached Martial at the far post who calmly shot across the goalkeeper into the corner. Boom! With a goal advanatage United pushed on and should have scored again with Lingard drawing a sharp save from Schmeichel after good work from Fellaini bringing down a cross to the far post.

Unfortunately Leicester then scored. The goal came from a free kick, a good delivery and some cunning blocking allowed Morgan a clear run at the ball to head home from close range past De Gea to make it 1-1.

By this point the pattern of the half was set. United dominated possession, as they usually do and Leicester sat back and waited for opportunities to hit United on the break. Leicester through weren’t as effective as they usually are. Why? The absence of Jamie Vardy was obviously an issue. Perhaps it was this that enabled United to press high, relived from the concern about Vardy running in behind. Smalling and Blind marshalled Okazaki and Ulloa and although Carrick stayed fairly deep at times United seemed more than prepared to go 2v2 at the back. The other key feature of the half was that Rojo and Valencia pushed very high and this pushed Mahrez and Schlupp back. This left the Leciester front two isolated and when in an attempt to break they hit the ball long United swept the danger up. The alternative was Leicester just hitting it forward in hope. This made them look a very poor side.

Fullback play

Fullback play

The worry here is that having initially got on top in the first half they were unable to go on and score more. The question has to be why?

Much of United’s attacking play was focused in wide areas with the fullbacks supporting the wide attackers, Lingard and Martial. There are a number of criticisms to be made of United’s wide play. Firstly the fullbacks don’t often make overlapping runs. Instead they tend to stay behind the wide attackers. This means that all the play is in front of the opposition, especially as Lingard and Martial tend to run inside across the line of the defence rather than behind it. The second issue is the quality of the delivery with crosses either being delayed or with a cross being a percentage ball into an area rather than towards a particular player.

United also over-passed. This was part of the problem with delayed delivery from wide areas but is also manifest in a pattern where the team passes sideways and back when the opportunity is available to make a pass that will stretch the opposition. This is almost as if the team are reluctant to go for the jugular. There was plenty of that in this game.

Rooney - learning to play as a midfield player?

Rooney – learning to play as a midfield player?

The positives here though were that United did pass at a good tempo for most of the first half and Rooney who whilst still clearly learning the midfield role was effective in midfield. He did three things well. Firstly he tracked Drinkwater who had an ineffective first half and also found time to push forward and feed Martial and Rojo on the United left. The other key and emerging feature of his midfield play is his tendency to switch play with a long diagonal ball from left to right, usually towards Valencia. Unfortunately and with the goal here as an exception, Valencia’s delivery is often poor.

Half time 1-1.

SECOND HALF

The game changed after half time simply because Leicester stopped hitting the ball forward early. Instead they held the ball in midfield whenever they got it with Kante, Drinkwater, Schlupp and Mahrez looking to play around Carrick, Rooney and Fellaini. At times United’s three found themselves chasing shadows and conceded a number of fouls. Leicester grew into the game through the opening period of the second half and looked to be taking control. Despite this they didn’t overwhelm United.

2nd early     late 2nd half

United in the middle and late in the second half

Instead the game became stretched; an end to end affair with both teams having chances. Perhaps to get more bodies into midfield Van Gaal replaced Lingard with Mata on 61 minutes. Mata started notionally on the right but his tendency to come inside often saw him in central areas.

United and Leicester passing comparisons

United and Leicester passing comparisons

From about the middle of the half the tempo of both teams play slowed. Was this almost a case of two prize fighters having punched themselves out? The pace of the game had been intense and both sides had worked very hard. On 74 minutes Herrera replaced Fellaini. Herrera tended to stay deeper than Fellaini had done as Leicester looked for a winner. Then Van Gaal introduced Memphis for Rashford with Martial moving into the centre. Memphis tended to stay wide on the left and he should have been awarded a penalty running inside Drinkwater who brought him down in the box. The referee awarded a free-kick outside the box and sent Drinkwater off. Despite this Leciester could probably point to one or two moments when the referee didn’t give them the right decision so overall a 1-1 result was probably fair.

CONCLUSION

So Leicester didn’t take the title at Old Trafford and their admirers whether they are their own fans, the press or the legion of football fans that have fallen in love with the Leicester story must wait. We apologize that we can’t join this “love-in”; our problem is that we don’t think they are that good. When United were on top in the first half Leicester resorted to just hitting the ball away. That tells a tale about their quality. Of course if Vardy was in the team then this might have been a more effective method. In the second half Leicester resorted to a plan B of sorts by attempting to play through the middle of the park with a series of shorter passes. This worked to a point but was ultimately ineffective suggesting as we have always thought that they are a bit of a “one trick pony”.

United dominate possession and passing combinations again.....but only draw.

United dominate possession and passing combinations again…..but only draw.

But what of United? They two can be a bit one dimensional. In this game their method remained the same throughout. It was less effective in the second half; they looked tired and their play was slower, but it was the same method. All three of United’s key weaknesses were evident in this game; the tempo of the play was at times too slow undermining their purpose, their passing was over cautious and their play in the final third was disjointed with their final delivery being poor. The challenge going forward into next year is to find a way of addressing these three weaknesses.