* Well, at least one team missed Wayne Rooney.
Jose Mourinho said before the game that his captain’s omission from the team was bound to be the biggest talking point, and that’s exactly as it should be given Manchester United’s first-half magnificence in Rooney’s absence.
The striker dropped deep to allow others to overlap, but not to the detriment of the attack as a whole. The No. 10 scored and was one of the game’s better players, and the new central midfielder created chances and passed with supreme ease. And that was just the first half. Of course it was just one game against one opponent, but the signs are not good for England’s captain.
“If Rooney doesn’t play today he plays the next one,” said Mourinho, but it just doesn’t (or shouldn’t) work like that. This was too emphatic an attacking display in his absence.
Every single role that Rooney has attempted in the last year (No. 9, No. 10, No. 6, No.8) was better performed in his absence. If that isn’t the worst indicator of his Manchester United future, I don’t know what is.
* Before I continue to wax at a level beyond lyrical, we must attempt to surmise quite how bad Leicester were. There were signs against Burnley and Club Brugge that Claudio Ranieri had his team back on track, but this was a truly awful afternoon.
Islam Slimani and Jamie Vardy were both isolated, Leicester missing the link-up play of Shinji Okazaki. Daniel Amartey and Danny Drinkwater pushed forward when possible, but looked like they had been asked to hold back the United tide. Sticking with the nautical theme, the defence on which Leicester’s title victory was built was all at sea. Christian Fuchs, Wes Morgan, Robert Huth and Danny Simpson defended like they’d never even met, let alone masterminded a title assault. They’ve now conceded four to Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea.
Leicester City have lost three league games this season, the same number as the whole of their glorious 2015/16 campaign. Play like this, and they’ll lose far more than they win.
* The people asked for change and lo, change did come. For only the third time in 119 Manchester United league games, Wayne Rooney started on the bench.
As the news filtered through, some wondered whether this was Rooney being dropped or just a one-off tactical move; there is only one answer. After the murmurs of discontent at Rooney’s form had grown to an ear-splitting volume, all eyes were on the United manager’s decision. Rarely can a team selection have been so anticipated.
Mourinho understandably tried to dampen talk of Rooney, though it was a futile attempt. “The question I knew would be Rooney but the question should be why Lingard and Rashford,” Mourinho said in his pre-match interview. “Because they are quick, the way they stretch the game and when our main striker is Zlatan we need fast people to surround him.”
The “quick” line is important, because it spells bad news for Rooney. With Ibrahimovic as Mourinho’s obvious first-choice striker and the Portuguese wanting pace around him, Rooney’s position looks in question on a regular basis; he isn’t getting any quicker. With Rashford wide, is Rooney now United’s back-up No. 9?
Even Rooney’s staunchest defenders cannot avoid his decline since the beginning of the season (last season? The season before that? 2011?). He hasn’t just looked off his game, but an entirely different player. Gone is the dynamism, hunger, acceleration, dribbling, passing and shooting of six, seven, eight, nine and ten years ago. All that is left is a shell, the puffing bluffer of United’s attack.
Yet Rooney being dropped only answered one of the issues with Mourinho’s team selections. Despite the clamour to give Paul Pogba more licence to roam forward – ideally on the left of a midfield three – Mourinho failed to address that concern. Not only did Pogba continue in a midfield two, but Ander Herrera replaced Marouane Fellaini as his partner. It worked here against generous opposition, but is it a long-term solution?
* Not everyone agreed with Mourinho’s decision, of course:
I'm shocked. OK @WayneRooney has been a little out of sorts but surely he's got more credit in the bank than to be treated this way?
— Richard Keys (@richardajkeys) September 24, 2016
When Richard Keys is the lone voice, it’s probably worth ignoring. Dark forces at work, Wayne.
* It’s easy to make sweeping conclusions from team selections, but I’m not about to stop now; Mourinho has effectively ended the Old Trafford careers of two players.
The first is Marcos Rojo, who is now behind Daley Blind in the left-back queue. After watching his recent performances for the first team, it’s a wholly appropriate call. Rojo has never truly settled in England, and his average performance level is far below the level required. He should start looking for another club.
The second player cast adrift is slightly more controversial; Morgan Schneiderlin has played just five league minutes under Mourinho. Against Leicester, he didn’t even make the bench.
It’s a fall from somewhere near grace for a player many supporters considered to be one of United’s best players under Louis van Gaal. Has Schneiderlin, like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Matteo Darmian, paid the price for being the last guy’s go-to maxn?
Schneiderlin’s spell out in the cold is particularly strange given United’s issues in getting Pogba further up the pitch and more influential on play. A midfield three of Michael Carrick sharing a position with Schneiderlin, Herrera and Pogba, with the second Frenchman pushed higher up the pitch. What’s not to like? We’ll have to wait and see.
* It feels an awfully long time ago now, but Leicester actually started the stronger. United looked nervous with their new-look front six and replacement left-back, as if aware of the enormity of this result and performance for the rest of the season.
There were hints at problems with a midfield two, with Drinkwater surging forward when possession was turned over. Marc Albrighton was guilty of crossing the ball into David de Gea’s hands when Slimani was free in the penalty area, and Amartey and Drinkwater had shots blocked. United were creaking, if not quite rocking.
* Yet as soon as the first goal arrived, the match ended as a contest. It came from a corner, and owed much to Robert Huth’s appalling marking of Chris Smalling. Manchester United’s captain for the day (and beyond?) was able to stoop and head low past Ron-Robert Zieler. The German goalkeeper was making his first Premier League away start, against his former club.
It is notable that Manchester United scored from three corners, because Rooney has been their regular taker this season. Before Saturday, Rooney had taken 16 of their 23 corners in the Premier League, and United had not scored a single goal from those set-pieces. With Daley Blind handed duties, they promptly scored three times from five first-half corners.
Yet as with the match as a whole, Leicester handed their hosts the goals with some dire defending. Huth’s incompetence for the opener was matched by Wes Morgan, who failed to track Rashford for the second goal, and Christian Fuchs, who allowed Paul Pogba to head home the third.
This defensive unease will worry Ranieri most because the same players who were so reliable last season seem to be suffering vital concentration lapses. Leicester only conceded ten goals from non-penalty set-pieces in the whole of last season, but have already reached four during this campaign.
* I’ve lumped the first, third and fourth Manchester United goals together for reasons of brevity, but the second really does deserve its own section. It was a thing of genuine beauty. I’m going to use the ‘R’ word again, but it’s precisely this sort of move that is impossible when your No. 10 is not at the races.
Watch the goal again to understand Mata’s key role in it. He didn’t just finish the move but directed it, pointing out passes to his team-mates. When Mata finally gets the ball at feet, he strides forward and lays the ball off to Ibrahimovic, but instinctively knows the best run to make. As Pogba chips the ball forward, Mata isn’t even looking at where the pass will be played, because he already knows. One second later and Jesse Lingard has touched the ball into Mata’s path. This is precisely the fluidity and speed of thought and movement that has been so lacking.
The finish, too, deserves praise, for Lingard’s touch was actually slightly more forceful than Mata would have liked. Rather than side-footing it past the goalkeeper in the style of Ilkay Gundogan against Bournemouth last weekend, Mata had to get his foot over and round the ball, and yet still hit it true and into the corner. Delicious.
That Mata goal is absolutely outstanding. Featured all ten outfielders in the build-up. Beautiful.
— Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) September 24, 2016
* Let’s talk Pogba, who produced easily his best performance of the season so far. Whether it was the space afforded by Rooney’s absence, the inability of the opponent to close him down or a combination of both, we saw glimpses of a player who can be the most complete midfielder in the world.
At his best – and we have not seen that yet – Pogba is so effective because he can be both delicate and powerful; power is a weapon in the armoury but only there ‘just in case’. His acceleration and strength can take him beyond an opponent and get him out of trouble, but Pogba is far more comfortable playing clever passes with any part of his boot. That disguised weapon of power is also used to fire shots at goal out of nowhere, as in the first half when Zieler was forced to tip wide.
Pogba had 115 touches of the ball (eight more than anyone else), passed the ball 99 times (ten more than anyone else) and played 65 of those passes in Leicester’s half; no other starter did so with more accuracy. Add to that the fact that no player on the pitch created more chances or had more shots on target, and you can see why Pogba is so fun to watch. He is a box office player, leaving his fingerprints all over every game. He wants the ball, and the ball wants him.
New-old team in a new-old league in a new-old country; Pogba returning to England was supposed to mean he could hit the ground at sprinting pace, but it was never going to be that easy. This is an all-action midfielder who spent pre-season in limbo while his future was determined. This was confirmation (as if it were needed) that, when fully fit and fully integrated, Pogba will be a diamond for United.
* When Vardy and Mahrez were removed at half-time by Ranieri, the commentators called it a “statement” made by the Leicester manager. A reminder: Leicester have a Champions League home game against Porto this midweek. Surely this was just a manager throwing in the towel with the game lost?
If so, it’s completely understandable. Leicester are not going to challenge for the title this season, and so Ranieri is prioritising their best chance at giving the supporters more to cheer. I’m completely okay with that.
* Finally on Vardy, we’re supposed to have a system in place whereby dissent to officials is outlawed in order to stamp it out. As Liam Twomey of Goal tweeted, during the first half Vardy reacted to Mike Dean not giving him a free-kick.
“What am I supposed to do? F**king bald c**t,” Vardy said to the referee, caught by television cameras. He was not even given a yellow card, but could have been given a red.
It might sound pedantic, but dissent is a serious issue in the game. Every week referees at amateur and youth level are sworn at and threatened simply for trying their best. Ignoring such obvious abuse at the highest level – and Vardy is far from alone – sets the tone and allows problems to fester. It needs stopping.
* Ranieri’s other big problem is how to get the best out of his forwards without changing the shape of his team. Leicester spent big money on Slimani and the manager understandably wants to start him, but that means leaving Okazaki on the bench.
That’s all very well, but Okazaki is the type of player who is noticed more in absence. He drops deep to link play, quite often the first pass from midfield when possession is won and the counter attack started. Slimani and Vardy’s understanding will improve, but they don’t immediately look like a strike partnership, more two strikers playing in isolation. Throughout the entire first half, Slimani failed to find Vardy with a single pass, and Vardy only found Slimani twice.
* The second half was a tame affair, with United happy to sit on what they had ahead of matches on Thursday and Sunday, but it did show just how important it is for teams to play at their full capacity. With United stepping off the gas even by 10-15%, Leicester were suddenly buoyed and salvaged some pride.
Ranieri’s side had more shots on target that United after half-time, and matched their hosts for corners. The rocket Leicester’s manager had presumably fired did provoke a reaction, but so too had United’s foot being eased from pedal. A game of two halves, you might say; shame only one really mattered.
* There was one positive aspect of Leicester’s defeat, though: the introduction of Demarai Gray. The winger has been kept on the periphery since joining from Birmingham in January, with two league starts, but he scored one of the finest away goals at Old Trafford in some time.
I have a theory that you could spot a consolation goal in a blind test, picking it out from a line-up. Like training ground wonder goals, the ball is hit with such freedom, disdain even, that magical things occasionally happen. This was a wonderful example.
Gray is still raw, only turning 20 in June. He lost possession 11 times in 45 minutes and completed just eight passes, but he has a spark of ability that will potentially take him to the top. Harnessing and refining that ability is now the key.
* In terms of the game’s best player, I disagreed with Alan Smith’s choice of Pogba and went for Herrera. Asked to perform a defensive role that looked like square peg being forced into round hole, Herrera flourished. There is the asterisk of Leicester’s inept display, but the Spaniard should be mightily pleased with his work.
Aside from Rashford, there is no player who Manchester United fans would like more to be given a run of games. Herrera is the perennial fan favourite, frozen out of the first team at regular intervals. Surely he now gets a run, whether it’s 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3?
* Yet the last word is going to a player who won’t get the headlines. Picked in place of the injured Luke Shaw, Blind deputised magnificently.
Seeing Mahrez substituted at half-time will have made the Dutchman purr, but in truth the left-back neutralised the threat of the reigning Player of the Year. Mahrez failed to have a shot or create a chance, and completed only seven passes. He was running down a Blind alley.
Forgive me for the hyperbole, but could Blind have designs on United’s left-back slot? Shaw is still the obvious first choice, but Mourinho does like his full-backs to prioritise defence over attack, and Shaw’s defending has already been questioned publicly. You can see now why the England left-back was so desperate to get fit and show his manager that faith is justified.