Manchester United beat reigning Premier League champions Leicester City and closed the gap on the top four with an excellent performance at the King Power stadium. Goals from Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Juan Mata turned a tricky away fixture into a comfortable Sunday afternoon stroll as United dominated almost from start to finish.
Phil Jones missed out after picking up an injury in midweek. Eric Bailly returned to the side after Africa Cup of Nations duty and Marcos Rojo moved to left back. Michael Carrick was rested ahead of a busy schedule in February, so Juan Mata also returned to the line-up and United started the match in a more traditional 4-4-2 formation, going toe-to-toe with Leicester and matching them tactically.
The decision to play with two up front and four across midfield didn’t work for Manchester United. Leicester started the game with their typical energy and relentless pressing style and United could not use the ball well enough to utilise the two forwards. In the opening 20 minutes, the visitors had a lot of possession but could not beat the initial Leicester press.
On the rare occasion that Manchester United did get beyond the halfway line they struggled to develop meaningful periods of possession in the attacking third and hardly threatened the Leicester goal. The home side, on the other hand, were much less fluid in possession but much more efficient. Matching up evenly in midfield, Leicester were able to win the individual battles in the middle third of the field and were much more of a presence in the attacking third.
Jose Mourinho took fairly immediate action and changed United’s shape after that opening 20 minute spell and his side started to take control. Marcus Rashford went out to the left-hand side, Mata remained on the right and Mkhitaryan moved into the no.10 position, giving United a three vs two numerical advantage in central midfield.
After the tactical tweak, Manchester United started to exert genuine control over the tempo of the match. Before the change, United had a lot of inconsequential possession. Plenty of the ball but no way to use it correctly. After Mourinho changed their shape, the amount of possession United had may have gone up marginally, but the way they used it changed completely. They were able to make short, penetrative passes between the lines and play forwards, into the Leicester half in order to threaten in the final third.
Leicester’s inability to win the midfield battle was disastrous. Danny Drinkwater and Wilfred Ndidi were chasing shadows in the middle of the pitch and could barely get a foot on the ball once United moved Mkhitaryan into a central position. Any energy that was being put into their intense pressing game was being wasted as United had the personnel to beat the press and start the next wave of attacks. Leicester had nowhere to go and were simply inviting pressure onto themselves. With no way to alleviate that pressure and no way to threaten on the counter-attack, it was only a matter of time before United would turn that dominance into goalscoring opportunities and break the deadlock.
In the second half, Manchester United kill the game with a third goal that was both pleasing on the eye and indicative of the tactical control they had seized in the first 45 minutes. Despite Claudio Ranieri’s substitutions at the break, including Andy King’s introduction at the expense of Shinji Okazaki, Leicester were unable to regain control of the midfield area and they had very little influence on the pattern of the second half. United’s third goal, scored by Juan Mata, was the result of a neat passage of play that cut right through the heart of Leicester City. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was key to it all, demonstrating the kind of short, sharp passes which helped wrestle back control from the energetic version of Leicester that started the game so promisingly in that opening 20 minutes.
In the end, that version of Leicester City crumbled at the hands of a dominant, professional Manchester United performance. The final thirty minutes were a procession for Mourinho’s men, who took the opportunity to conserve energy and control the game at a slower pace, rather than turning it on and looking for a fourth or fifth goal.
Manchester United controlled the game, dominated possession, moved the ball around with ease and slowly suffocated the life out of Leicester, preventing any possibility of a comeback. Any threat from the home side came in short bursts. Brief periods of possession that periodically threatened David De Gea’s goal, but were rarely maintained for long enough to develop into sustained pressure or create meaningful momentum. It was all too easy for United.
Now they sit just a point behind Liverpool and two points behind a top four spot. At last, Manchester United have capitalised on their rivals poor form and closed the gap on those Champions League places. With United going strong in three cup competitions and well placed to meet that minimum expectation in the Premier League, 2016/17 could still have a very memorable finish in store when the prizes are handed out at the end of the season.