Having failed to win one league game against relegation battlers, Manchester United looked to avoid making the same mistake in their visit to champions Leicester City, who were just one point above the relegation zone. Jose Mourinho opted to try out a 4-4-2 to start the game, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic paired up with Marcus Rashford up front, but reverted back to a 4-2-3-1 before long, with Rashford shifted out to the wing.
United were quite poor before the change, failing to be of any threat to Leicester at all. This gradually changed as United changed formations, getting their grip on the game, before grabbing two goals in the last five minutes of the half. Henrikh Mkhitaryan took advantage of a reckless Robert Huth to run with the ball from halfway before smashing one past Kasper Schmeichel before Zlatan Ibrahimovic clinically finished off a low cross from Antonio Valencia. United then dropped their intensity in their second half, but not before Juan Mata added a third, after some lovely combination with Mkhitaryan.
Mkhitaryan was at the heart of United’s attack for most of the game, and it’s really no surprise that he’s bagged himself a goal and an assist. Having struggled out wide, the formation change and his move to the number 10 role set him free. The combination of his direct, composed runs and the intelligence of his passing and movement was the driving force behind United’s big win. He even made some decent defensive contribution with some solid tackles.
Leading the line, Ibrahimovic also played an important role. The 4-4-2 employed early in the game was clearly meant to make the most of Ibrahimovic’s tendency to drop back and influence the build up, and he definitely played that part well, even after his formation. His goal buried Leicester’s chances to end the half with hope, and he also showed off some tidy bits of skill, notably sending Christian Fuchs tumbling near the byline in the second half.
While those two were running things up front, Chris Smalling led a solid defensive unit that kept a well-earned clean sheet. Coming into the team following an injury to Phil Jones, Smalling showed that he still has what it takes to challenge for a starting spot. Paired up with the returning Eric Bailly, Smalling put in a much more restrained performance than he’s used to, to compensate for his more aggressive partner, and he was a rock. His strongest area was in the air, winning header after header, but his positional discipline was a revelation.
A much-needed win for United, following some unsatisfactory results, and with other results in the league, United are now right back in the race for top four. Although there are a handful of players to choose from, Mkhitaryan was the most impressive of the lot. His style of play, and how effective he employed it was the reason United’s system worked, and that shows in the relationship he showed with his teammates on the pitch, and the two goals he had a hand in.