Although just one point and one place separated them in the Premier League table ahead of their meeting, the general feeling surrounding Leicester and Manchester United could not have been more contrasting ahead of this weekend.
In the blue corner were Leicester, led by an affable, madcap manager, a side scoffing at their dark horses tag and taking the Premier League by storm in only their second season since promotion. In the red corner were Manchester United, led by an unyielding autocrat, and a side split between the value of results and the attraction of performances. This was good vs. evil, underdog vs. top dog, fairytale vs. reality, David vs. Goliath. We all remember how the latter went.
The coincidence will not have been lost on Van Gaal. Considering one of the most ignominious defeats of his United tenure came against Leicester a matter of games after abandoning a system with three central defenders, it was a brave decision to opt for his formerly favoured 3-4-1-2 formation against the same opponents on Saturday. Then again, this was hardly the same opponent; this was a Leicester side – and a Jamie Vardy – on a remarkable run of form.
Not only that, but this was a Leicester side that proves success and excitement do not have to be mutually exclusive. The Foxes are where they are and have achieved what they have achieved not through chance, nor through a gung-ho approach. Instead, this is a Leicester side with a clear but interchangeable game plan, capable of causing any opponent problems. This is a Leicester side that have proven success can be attained through entertainment, not at the expense of it. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s equaliser was the 21st goal they have conceded this season, more than all but the bottom six. Yet Claudio Ranieri entrusts his attack to simply score more than they concede; only Manchester City have outscored them. They are the antithesis of Van Gaal’s methodical style.
Even the starting line-ups signified the huge divide between these two sides. Leicester’s starting XI boasted £19.3million worth of talent, the gem of which, Vardy, was bought for £1million. Shinji Okazaki, making his first start in five league games, was the most expensive member at £7million in the summer.
Youth-team graduate Paddy McNair aside, Chris Smalling represented the cheapest purchase in United’s starting XI. He cost £10million five years ago. Where Leicester had spent under £20million assembling their table-topping side, United’s comprised players signed for a cumulative fee of £198million. If this was billed as the heavyweight battle pitting flair against power, it should have been a first-round knockout.
Yet it was Leicester who landed the first blow. It is important to retain a semblance of reality when discussing a player who had scored 26 goals in 106 games in England’s top four divisions prior to this season, but it’s also difficult not to sit back and marvel at Vardy’s achievements. The 28-year-old’s ‘indiscretions’ off the field should not be ignored, but to analyse his on-pitch performances is to analyse a player hellbent on improvement. And it shows.
The biggest compliment to pay Vardy is that he didn’t look like missing when presented with his first opportunity on goal. Christian Fuchs’ excellent pass, coupled with Ashley Young’s lackadaisical defensive line, set Vardy through on goal on 24 minutes. It is now a record-breaking 11 consecutive Premier League games in which the Englishman has scored.
Vardy summed up just how different these two sides are. United were typically plodding and disciplined, while Leicester displayed explosive pace, battling determination, and a straightforward yet remarkably effective approach to attacking. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Back in September, after a 5-2 defeat to Arsenal, I asked whether Leicester could be considered serious contenders for European qualification this season. It was scoffed at then, but no-one could have foreseen their progress since. That Arsenal defeat was their first and, as yet, last this campaign.
United had few chances to change that. “I’ve never seen a slower Manchester United team in my life,” was Jamie Carragher’s damning post-match indictment. “Manchester United used to counter-attack like that,” was the sombre response from Gary Neville as Vardy made history, and it was a view surely shared by the majority of the United faithful. Leicester, a side with the fraction of the budget afforded to Van Gaal, scoring the type of goal with which the United of old had become synonymous. A bitter pill to swallow, no doubt.
It’s why Van Gaal’s calls for more money to spend in January are particularly galling. The Dutchman has spent over £250million in assembling his current squad, including a summer investment of £100million. Their opponents on Saturday have spent £45million in the same timeframe, but registered more shots on target and looked altogether more threatening for longer periods. Daniel Storey wrote last week that the manager needs to prove he can use faster, more creative players before he can be allowed to buy them; this was not the most compelling case.
Just three players from that 5-3 defeat last September featured in United’s starting XI on Saturday, further underlining the overhaul undertaken by Van Gaal since being appointed in the summer of 2014. He is yet to prove he can be trusted with further investment.
Van Gaal has long been able to justify such insipid, systematic football on the basis of results, but United are now in the midst of four wins in 11, scoring just nine goals in that time. With Champions League qualification far from certain, pressure will rightfully mount.