The first competitive match under Jose Mourinho, the first opportunity to win a trophy. The 2016 Community Shield was contested between two sides who are still finding their feet and finalising their preparations for the new season, as Manchester United and Leicester City took to the Wembley turf for the traditional curtain raiser.
The game played out as expected on a warm, sunny day at Wembley. Not quite a friendly, not the blood and thunder of the Barclays Premier League, the first half was certainly a better watch than the second. United had most of the ball, Leicester looked to hit their opponents on the break, it was a familiar pattern.
United still looked hesitant. Stuck in a malaise, a Louis van Gaal induced hangover of backwards passing and overly complicated patterns of play. The double pivot of Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini was static, with very little forward momentum or vertical penetration. Wayne Rooney only added to the problem, creating a midfield triumvirate that lacked pace, power or the ability to play through the lines and create attacking situations through the central areas. Such a performance could not have been timed better, with United’s confirmation of Paul Pogba’s medical an opportune reminder of exactly what United are missing in that position.
Still, the early signs are there. Mourinho wants to play from the back. Eric Bailly and Daley Blind are both excellent passers of a football and United were able to move the ball out of defence and into midfield with ease, despite Leicester’s aggressive pressing.
Going forward is where there was the most refreshing change from the last couple of seasons. Under van Gaal United were stale and static. Attacking players had to hold their positions, move the ball in the same predictable patterns and the emphasis was very much on the tactical, not the technical. Under Mourinho, there is freedom. Part of the reasoning behind selecting Antonio Valencia at fullback is because of his attacking attributes, not his defensive ability. Both he and Luke Shaw were pushed high and wide in offensive situations to supplement United’s attacking shape. Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, so often isolated and shackled in wide positions last season, were given the freedom to move centrally, rotate positions with Rooney and Ibrahimovic and support the Swede at the focal point of United’s attack. It wasn’t as crisp as Mourinho would like it, but the interchange and movement between United’s forward players were evident and exciting. There is promise in those forward positions.
The second half was a scrappier affair. Scrappier because both teams are not quite at the level they want to be physically, scrappy because so many substitutions affect the flow of a game but also scrappy because Leicester changed the dynamic of the match and made the second period a more even contest.
The introduction of Demarai Gray and Ahmed Musa gave Leicester more pace and impetus on the break and allowed the Premier League champions to drive at the heart of United’s defence more often and with greater effectiveness. Yes, Leicester equalised through a terrible Marouane Fellaini error, but they forced such a mistake through the pace and power of Ahmed Musa’s driving run, and they took the chance because of the tenacity and intensity of Jamie Vardy. New season, same old Leicester.
If this game was to teach us anything about Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, it would teach us that the new manager has addressed weaknesses in his squad and recruited well in order to strengthen. In a close game with few chances, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was on the periphery. As the focal point of this United side, though, Mourinho was prepared to play to his strengths. A goal rarely seen under Louis van Gaal, Valencia got the ball in a wide area, chipped a teasing cross into the penalty area and Ibrahimovic towered over Wes Morgan to head in the winner. A late winner. It might not have been total football, but it was winning football. Somehow it just suits Manchester United that little bit better.
From a purely tactical perspective, this afternoon’s match was intriguing. Manchester United, at times, looked slow and pedestrian and stuck in a previous mindset that will be difficult to shift. Leicester looked confident in their own skin, understanding their own strengths, knowing their limitations and comfortable at this level. For United, the positives will be a wonderful solo goal by Jesse Lingard, a scoring start for Zlatan and an assured performance from Eric Bailly.
Winning at Wembley, not a bad way to start the new season.