Four goals in a scintillating first-half display saw a rampant Manchester United side take apart the Premier League champions in convincing fashion. Wayne Rooney was left out of the starting XI as Jose Mourinho opted for a more mobile, more athletic midfield combination against a hard-working Leicester City side. Ander Herrera, Jesse Lingard and Daley Blind came in, with Wayne Rooney, Marouane Fellaini and Luke Shaw missing out.
In the first half, United were spectacular. There was pace, power, movement, but most importantly there was quality. Four goals against the champions, game over, done and dusted, three points in the bag.
The key to Manchester United’s success was in their midfield. After an ill-fated experiment with 4-3-3 against Watford last week, Mourinho reverted to the 4-2-3-1 that had produced such a promising start to the season. Without Rooney and Fellaini, United were more fluid, less rigid and therefore less predictable in attacking situations. The movement between United’s midfield players allowed the three central players to overrun the two in Leicester’s midfield and control the game. Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera, and Juan Mata interchanged effortlessly, disorganising the visitor’s defensive shape, creating space between the lines and carving out opportunities to pass the ball quickly and effectively in the final third.
Not only was it United’s best performance of the season, it was Paul Pogba’s best performance in a red shirt since his £89 million move from Juventus. Many people had speculated that Wayne Rooney’s place in the team was holding Pogba back from truly flourishing. On today’s evidence, Mourinho will need to sacrifice one in favour of the other, a battle I cannot see Rooney winning right now.
Pogba made more passes than any other player in the first half and his growing influence in this team was evident this afternoon. Despite starting in a deeper position alongside Ander Herrera, Pogba was not restricted to a defensive role. He took command of the midfield; getting forward at every opportunity and was instrumental in the number of chances United created in that first period.
His range of passing, movement without the ball and willingness to attempt defence-splitting passes opened the game up time and time again. He brought others into the game with short passes between the lines and stretched the game with longer passes to switch the play. He also posed a goal threat from range, scored a wonderful header for United’s fourth goal and directly created chances himself. In one 45-minute spell, Paul Pogba produced the complete midfield performance.
While Pogba was pulling strings in deeper areas, Juan Mata was the jewel in United’s crown. His selection as United’s no.10 went somewhat unnoticed, given that Rooney was out and Pogba is continually under such intense scrutiny. However, Mata was selected as Rooney’s direct replacement, so there was as much pressure on Mata to perform as anyone else. He didn’t disappoint.
Mata brings something to this team that Wayne Rooney cannot. Rooney is (or more accurately, was) a powerhouse of a player. Pace and strength, eye for goal, but not so delicate. Mata is almost the antithesis of that description. Not particularly quick, slight, hardly the typical athlete, but he is a technically brilliant footballer. His ability to move the ball quickly and accurately in tight spaces, thread an eye of the needle pass and find space between the lines from which he can cause the most damage are aspects of his game that are invaluable at the elite level. Today he did all of those things and more, including scoring a delightful goal to double United’s lead at 2-0.
I mentioned the movement between United’s midfield players today and mapping Mata’s passing allows you to see exactly that. He wasn’t restricted to the central areas. He moved left, he moved right, when he vacated the space in the middle it allowed Lingard or Pogba or Ibrahimovic to move into it, which in turn created space somewhere else. United’s ball rotation was a joy to watch and most of it started with the diminutive Spaniard.
The beauty of Manchester United’s performance this afternoon was not just the goals. It was not the rampant nature of the victory or the way that they completely dismantled the reigning champions. What was so wonderful to see was the combination of so many technically gifted footballers playing together on the same pitch. Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera in midfield were the nucleus, Juan Mata the catalyst in front of them, Daley Blind’s supporting role from left full-back only added further control in possession of the ball and Manchester United were able to control the ball, move it quickly, overpower, outthink, outfight and outscore the opposition.
It wasn’t a tactical masterstroke from Mourinho, it was football at its most basic. He picked his best players, picked three midfielders against Leicester’s two, gave his players the freedom to express themselves and it paid off in spectacular fashion.
It is no surprise to see Paul Pogba depicted as the most influential player on the pitch today, but what is interesting to see is the patterns emerging in United’s team shape. The influence of the full-backs cannot be overstated, as they continue to hold such prominent attacking positions in open play. Herrera’s new deep-lying role is getting the best out of him and those around him in midfield, while Mourinho’s attack is beginning to take shape. The wide forwards are expected to come in off the touchline to interchange and get involved in possession, creating space for the influential full-backs to get forward and provide a lot of United’s attacking width. To make this happen, United need pace and guile and must move the ball quickly to prevent predictable patterns of passing and to stop the opposition sitting deep and defending comfortably. With those criteria necessary to replicate this kind of performance, there can be no room for Wayne Rooney in this Manchester United side.
But if you’re a United fan, do you really care?