After a win at Northampton United returned to League action and a home game against Champions Leicester City. The questions everyone was asking was would Mourinho continue with Carrick and Herrera after their strong displays in the League Cup and would he retain his faith in the much maligned Rooney?


In: De Gea, Valencia, Bailly, Pogba, Mata, Rashford, Ibrahimovic and Lingard.
Out: Romero, Rojo, Fosu-Mensah, Schneiderlin, Carrick, Young, Rooney and Memphis.


  • This was the best first half performance from a United side in memory. Once they got into their stride good anticipation, movement and passing saw United rip the Champions apart.
  • Mourinho adopted a 4-3-3 shape with Herrera at the base and Pogba and Mata further forward with freer roles. This worked and seemed to suit their individual qualities.
  • Three of four of United’s goals came from well worked forwards, but what was noticeable was how United were able to dominate Leicester physically in these situations. Despite the size of Hugh and Morgan they couldn’t cover all bases against the size and power of Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Smalling and Bailly.
  • In the second half United took their foot off the gas, but Valencia over committed at time and United were caught out by overloads. At time ot looked like United were playing with a back three.
  • Towards the end United changed to 4-2-3-1 to see out the game. There was far more squarer passing after this change. United were solid, but the football was not as fluid or dynamic.


Jose Mourinho made eight changes from the side that faced Northampton in mid-week. The team formed up in a 4-3-3 shape with Herrera at the base of midfield and Mata and Pogba ahead of him. Ibrahimovic returned to the side to lead the line in a central position with Rashford on the left and Lingard on the right. Further back Shaw’s continuing absence meant that Blind moved to left back with Smalling partnering Bailly at the centre of the defence. This meant no starting place for Rooney.

1st-half  4853559

United’s first half shape and Ander Herrera with a defensive midfield role which provided freedom for others

Post-match many commentators have stated that United didn’t start that well and that their play was fairly slow and unadventurous in the first twenty minutes or so. This is a little unfair as in most Premier League matches space is at a premium at the start as both teams are organised and sharp; full of running. The problem recently for United is that they have started in fairly ponderous fashion. Here they didn’t; United asserted themselves and passed the ball at a good tempo. Slowly they began to get on top.

Herrera action areas, anchoring the midfield and providing defensive cover right across the pitch in deep areas

Herrera action areas, anchoring the midfield and providing defensive cover right across the pitch in deep areas

The pattern established produced the best half of football from United this season and perhaps for significantly longer than that. Herrera anchoring the midfield allowing Mata and Pogba a freer role. They had licence to move wherever the space and opportunity presented itself. The lack of someone playing in the conventional number 10 meant that Ibrahimovic had space to drop deep and link play. He therefore fluctuated between doing this and playing high against the central defenders Huth and Morgan; more of this later. Rashford and Lingard on either side of Ibrahimovic always looked to cut inside and Lingard often popped up over on his opposite side.

Ibrahimovic action areas, without a number 10 he had licence to play across the front dropping, whether ever the opportunity presented itself.

Ibrahimovic action areas, without a number 10 he had licence to play across the front dropping, whether ever the opportunity presented itself.

This pattern of play worked well because United passed quickly and moved well. This was a team effort with no player trying to do too much. Short or long early simple passes and brave movement off the ball with players trusting team mates to deliver the anticipated passes. United anticipated well in defence as well with Smalling and Bailly providing a robust back line but with Herrera covering in front and quickly closing down any danger. Herrera has often been criticised for a lack of defensive discipline something which regularly sees him caught out of position. This didn’t happen here. When Leicester had the ball United worked hard to quickly close down the players who usually deliver early passes forward to Vardy and Mahrez, as a consequence they were feeding off scraps and were hardly in the game.

Leicester’s success last year was founded on their solid defence; they conceded four goals here in the first half. Why? Initially they started well in a 4-4-2 defensive shape. The wide players in their midfield four positioned themselves in the narrow half spaces to block the passing lanes as United came forward. Then they were blown away by the power the force of Ibrahimovic. Post-match many have commented that this wasn’t Ibrahimovic at his best, but it was good enough for

Huth and Morgan are big powerful players, but Zlatan made them look big and cumbersome for whilst he is also big and strong he showed himself to have greater skill and guile. This seemed to terrify the whole Leicester defence. Very early in the game, on a couple of occasions Ibrahimovic out-jumped Morgan to win headers and on another occasion he out muscled Huth. That incident was interesting. Huth and Ibrahimovic both chased a lose pass forward, Huth initially being closer to the loose ball looked likely to win it but Ibrahimovic was quicker and drew level in the chase. Huth tried to shoulder charge Ibrahimovic and when this didn’t work tried to grab him. Neither of these two strategies worked and Huth was shrugged off all with Ibrahimovic retaining control of the ball.

United’s first goal came from a corner after 22 minutes and could attributed to this softening up exercise. An excellent delivery by Blind was met By Smalling who headed home. Huth was picking up Ibrahimovic, Morgan Pogba but in the goalmouth movement neither was able to cover Smalling. Boom!

There then followed a period of excellent vibrant football which saw Pogba and Inbrahimovic  combine to create a number of chances. Either Pogba, Ibrahimovic or Rashford, (who blazed an excellent chance high and wide when played in by Ibrahimovic), could have scored in this period.

Mata - Boom!

Mata – Boom!

But then on 37 minutes United did manage a second. Mata advanced in the half space on right, passed to Pogba and continued his run square inside. Pogba chipped a pass to Lingard who with back to goal simple laid it off to Mata running across goal, he took it in his stride and hit it early into far corner. Boom! 2-0.

The Leciester collapsed conceding two further goals from corners in the 40th and 42nd minutes.

For the first of these perhaps nervous about their ability to defend corners against United’s statuesque side they switched off and were sucker punched. Blind took a corner with a low short pass along touchline to Mata who whipped the ball across six yard box for Rashford to lunge in at close range. Leicester were caught off guard as they steeled themselves for another delivery into the box. Boom! Then Pogba unmarked with an unchallenged header scored direct from another excellent Blind delivery. Leicester seemed like rabbits in headlights now when defending corners. Boom!

Pogba - Boom! His first goal of his United senior careers.

Pogba – Boom! His first goal of his United senior careers.

Halftime, United led the Champions 4-0.


United didn’t make any half time substitutions, but Leicester did removing Vardy and Marhez and introducing Gray and King. This seemed to be an attempt to avoid conceding more goals. They left Silmani, Vardy’s first half partner up front an adopted a 4-5-1 shape. They also now changed approach and instead of trying to move the ball forward quickly in transition they were now more patient in their build up play.

United noticeably took their foot off the gas. There was no significant change in approach they were just slightly more controlled in all that they did; their play was just a little more deliberate. Unfortunately this allowed Leicester to gain a foothold in the game and before long they scored.

United's average player positions during the game. Note the midfield "trivote"

United’s average player positions during the game. Note the midfield “trivote”

Before the goal Leicester had produced a couple of good moves on the United right achieving overloads on Valencia. Valencia was pushing high on this side, certainly much higher than Blind on the other side and this resulted in United’s defence looking like a lopsided back three at times; it left plenty of space on the United right for Leicester to attack.

The goal came from this side but it didn’t come from an overload but instead from a piece of individual excellence. Demari Gray ran at Valencia on the United right who blocked his run as Lingard came across to double up. Gray turned back and inside running across Lingard who offered a half-hearted challenge; he had to be stronger but Gray shrugged him off and stole half a yard to shoot. In fairness it was an excellent curving shot into the opposite top corner. De Gea had no chance. 44 minutes played, 4-1

The obvious tactical point to make was that this goal was in many ways as a consequence of United surrendering the initiative. This ‘surrender’ was minimal and subtle but perhaps United are not practiced enough in a 4-3-3 to adopt such an approach and maintain defensive solidity. In a 4-2-3-1 the wide players tuck in to block the half spaces, (we spent time considering this after the Bournemouth game), United have to work on how they can adapt to do this as effectively in a 4-3-3.

United were still dominating possession for most of the game and Leicester never really looked like scoring again. It was almost as if the game had reached the point of a truce. United didn’t need to score any more to win, (perhaps they did to improve goal difference and send a signal but they seemed unconcerned about this), Leicester knew they had little chance of getting back into the game and were perhaps more concerned with suffering a more embarrassing larger defeat. As such the game petered out.

2nd-half  soccer-man-_68

United shape after reverting to a 4-2-3-1 and Wayne Rooney a late substitute for Marcus Rashford

On 78 minutes Mourinho removed Lingard and introduced Carrick. Now he changed the team shape to a 4-2-3-1. Mata moved out to the wide right and Carrick joined Herrera in the double pivot with Pogba as the number 10. This was essentially a cautious move to close the game out but it was evident that thereafter United’s play was noticeably more formulaic. That shape seems to encourage United players to stay in lines and pass square. Suddenly in this shape United found it harder to move the ball forward without simply pushing the opposition back in their maintained defensive shape. When this happened the play became compressed in the Leicester final third and United struggled to make chances. On 83 minutes Rooney replaced Rashford and on 87 minutes Young replaced Mata; two like for like changes in the wide positions.


This was a much improved performance from United. Adopting a 4-3-3 shape they were no less solid defensively but far more dynamic and proactive when in possession. In the first half they blew Leicester away. After the break they were more conservative in their approach which is perhaps understandable given they had a four goal lead.

Match statistics - United dominate possession and passing combinations

Match statistics – United dominate possession and passing combinations

The key to their first half display was twofold; the midfield shape/personnel with players in that “trivote” suited to the roles they were performing, (even Herrera of whom we have concerns as a defensive screen gave an excellent display) and the strength and power of Ibrahimovic. Late in the game United reverted to a 4-2-3-1 shape to see out the game but it was noticeable that United’s play was far more stratified and stilted, with more safe square passes and formulaic predictable passing patterns. That’s okay in the last ten minutes when you hold a three goal lead. But the 4-3-3 seems a better suited strategy for this group of players.