MANCHESTER UNITED vs LEICESTER CITY
After two straight wins United led the table going into this weekend’s round of matches but by this 5.30pm kick-off others had already recorded wins to go above them. Only a win would do then to return on the top.
- The pattern of this game went exactly as expected; Leicester sat deep in a low block, waiting for opportunities to hit United with quick breaks. United dominated but struggled to break through.
- After the opening goal in the 70th minute the roles were reversed. Leicester had more urgency and attacking intent, United again changed shape and looked to hit them on the break.
- From quite early in the first half it was clear United couldn’t get through Leicester and they reverted to trying to set up shooting games opportunities from the edge of the box. Jose changed this in the second half but in the first Pogba had 5 shots from here; unfortunately few of these were on target.
- The introduction of Rashford changed the game, starting from wider he had space to run into and stretched the opposition across the width of the pitch. He also combined well with teammates.
- Bailly owned Vardy.
United started this game as they had started the previous two in a 4-2-3-1 the only change being Martial in place of Rashford on the left. Leicester started in a 4-4-2 with Okazaki supporting Vardy in attack. Their approach however was essentially defensive awaiting opportunities to hit United with quick breaks. This of course was the strategy which served Leicester so well in 2015-16 season and asked United a question they have struggled to answer in recent years; could they break through two banks of four?
United’s starting shape with Martial starting in the side
It was clear from very early on that United were going to struggle to get behind Leicester or play through them. Leicester sat deep and most of United’s play was in front of this low block. Leicester did not look to press aggressively but instead cover space engaging with United only when United players were isolated, played a loose pass or when United did manage to find space between the lines and there was a sense of danger, then they engaged aggressively.
Martial, Mata and Mkhitaryan were all fairly fluid constantly interchanging but all coming or staying narrow. This made the centre congested and ensured that the obvious pass for Matic and Pogba was a wide square ball to advancing fullbacks. Unfortunately Valencia and Blind were fairly conservative in their movement forward and did not stretch play wide in forward areas. Consequently they tended to recycle the ball back to the centre rather than threatening the space behind the Leicester fullbacks.
United enjoyed the majority of possession in the first half and a flurry of good chances came in the middle of the half. The nature of these chances illustrated the way the game was going however with United looking to tee up shooting opportunities from the edge of or just outside the box rather than by trying to penetrate that low block. These shooting chances emerged in two ways, either via a ball in to Lukaku, who was reasonably well marshaled by McGuire and Morgan, and a layoff to an advancing player from the midfield lines or a dragged back low centre from the half spaces. Unfortunately a large proportion of these were inaccurate 14 first half shots 8 of which were from the area centrally just outside the box, Pogba 5 of these, 4 of which were off target with one being blocked. Was this a deliberate tactic or just how the pattern of play evolved in response to United’s inability to find a way through?
When they got a chance to break out Leicester did so at pace with early passes directed towards Vardy who would try and bring others into play but then look for a return pass. The problem for Leicester though was that Jones and especially Bailly handled Vardy well. Vardy often beats centre backs for pace and directness but Bailly appears as quick which allowed United to neutralize his threat.
So at half time the score was 0-0, the first time United had failed to score in the first half this year.
Neither team made any half time changes although United’s approach did change slightly. We are referring to this as a game of three parts, a very rough dissection but the first part of the second half represents the second of those three parts. The difference at the start of the second half was twofold. Firstly United played with more energy and moved the ball quicker and secondly rather than trying to pull the ball back towards the area just outside the box to try and tee up a shot Unite instead looked to cross and cross early. There was more effort now to try and get behind the oppositions fullbacks. This all came to nought however as most of these crosses were fairly inaccurate and greater accuracy was required given that United were only playing with one central striker.
Often the cross didn’t beat the first man although United almost made a breakthrough courtesy of this factor in the 52nd minute. This chance to score came from the second of two penalty shouts in the same move. Firstly Mata attempted to cross from a narrow position on the right with the ball hitting Christian Fuchs arm from a range of about 3 yards; the referee rightly turned the penalty appeal down. Then seconds later Martial tried to cross from the left with the ball hitting Danny Simpson’s arm, he was about 6 or 7 yards from Martial. The referee, Michael Oliver gave this one, a harsh decision, presumably because he had doubts about whether he should have given the first. Lukaku stepped up to take the kick but he placed it at saveable height to the keeper’s right and he pushed it away to keep the score at 0-0.
Despite United failing to score however it was Leicester who made the first changes replacing Albrighton with Demarai Gray and Okazaki with King in the 60th minute. King slotted in on the right side of midfield with Mahrez moving wider. Gray replaced Albrighton on the left meaning that Vardy was now the sole front runner as Leciester were essentially now a 4-5-1. This was then a fairly defensive move almost as if having reached the hour mark without conceding they didn’t want to throw this position away.
United in the second half and Marcus Rashford who came on in the 67th minute
A few minutes later United made their first change replacing Mata with Rashford on the United right in the 67th minute. Rashford immediately adopted a far wider position than Mata. It wasn’t that he stayed wide rather that he started in a far wider position. This meant that he had a greater amount of space to run into and he immediately started to use this. In fact his direct running and pace lead to United’s breakthrough in the 70th minute. The goal came from a corner but the corner was won by the combination play of Rashford and Pogba on the right with Rashford running diagonally at the Leicester penalty area from a starting position by the touchline. Leciester managed to scramble the ball out but they left Rashford unmarked in the box from the corner and he swept home first time from close range. Boom! 1-0 with 70 minutes played.
The goal changed the game and it now entered its third phase. Leicester had to be more adventurous and this was immediately seen as they pushed a little higher and committed more bodies forward. They also tried to keep the ball alive rather than being happy to run it out of play as they had done previously. In this phase Mahrez and Gray were a real handful with their own direct running, Demarai Gray in particular looked a serious danger with his pace.
Perhaps this prompted Jose to make his second change in the 74th minute replacing Mkhitaryan with Fellaini and changing the team shape. In the previous game United have adopted a 4-3-3 at this point in the game and this could be read as a similar strategy here for as in those early games Pogba and Fellaini similarly changed sides with Pogba going to the right and Pogba switching to the left. The shape though was more of a 4-1-4-1 as Rashford and Martial dropped deep, presumably because of Leicester’s threat from wide areas as they looked to get back into the game.
The broad shape of United’s midfield four and especially Rashford’s wider starting position seemed to encourage United to attempt to get behind the Leciester fullbacks and the wide threat continued. This effectively weakened the Leicester centre as they chased the game and United looked to counter-attack.
United in a 4-1-4-1 shape before and after the introduction of Lingard
In the 76th minute United replaced Martial with Lingard with Rashford switching to the left and Lingard taking up a position on the right but with a seemingly flexible role as United frequently looked to counter attack. Leicester also withdrew Vardy at this point and introduced the fresh legs of Slimani to lead the line. Effectively the roles were now reversed in the game with United dropping deep in shape but looking to hit Leicester on the break. Leicester though were particularly concerned about the pace and direct running of Rashford and would look to double and even triple up on him whenever he had the ball. This lead directly to United’s second goal.
Prior to this however we had already seen a similar scenario when Mkhitaryan had still been on the pitch and Rashford had momentarily switched to the left. Rashford received the ball midway into the Leicester half right on the touchline. Three Leicester players set themselves anticipating he would run at them but instead he played a simple pass to their blind side for Matic to run onto. He collected the ball and pulled it back to Mkhitaryan but he was in two minds as to what to do and couldn’t sought his feet out in time.
In the 82nd minute it was déjà vu all over again as Rashford played an identical ball to Lingard who had run diagonally across the pitch to the blindside of the players set to receive Rashford’s run. Again his pass bluffed them but the threat they felt illustrated the effectiveness of Rashford’s running. This time Lingard fired a low cross into the box and again a player couldn’t sought his feet out. Fortunately for United the ball simply hit Fellaini’s knee at close range and nestled in the back of the net to make the score 2-0. Boom!
Leciester were noticeably deflated by this second goal and despite a late chance created by the running of Demarai Gray; expertly dealt with by the alert De Gea saving from Slimani at his near post United managed to record another clean sheet and so the final score was 2-0.
Another win and another tight game where despite being out top the first goal was all important. It took a lot longer to come this time but when it did United never looked like doing anything but win the game. In a sense Leicester’s strategy failed here; that isn’t a criticism as theirs is a strategy that has worked for them so well in recent seasons it’s just that these days if United do score they seem less likely to concede and more it’s more likely that they will score again with a combination of fresh legs and pace likely to further reinforce their advantage.
The introduction of Rashford was key, his wider starting position stretched Leicester out, requiring them to defend on a wider front. After the goal as they became more adventurous this was an even more effective factor.
The question is what if United don’t make that breakthrough. This problem is pertinent because they aren’t blowing teams away, as said this was a tight game. They had 60% possession here and 22 shots but again United struggled to get that first goal against a team set up in a disciplined low block. There is still work to do on that.