It’s widely accepted that defending in football is based around organisation and concentration whilst attacking is dependent on creativity and individual quality. If Manchester United epitomized the concepts of good attacking this weekend then they were surely helped by Leicester complete defensive capitulation.
Leicester look a long way from the miracle team that took the league by storm last season. In fact, they find themselves in a congested bottom six with only two points separating 15th and 20th. Meanwhile, United are continuing a 15 game unbeaten run in which they’ve threatened to break into the top 4 but lacked the attacking intent to kill games off against lower opposition. In that respect this game was a watershed moment for United who scored 2 goals against the foxes and were completely dominant from the moment they went 1-0 up. This can be put down to two central issues. Firstly, Leicester’s poor shape and lack of organisation whilst defending. Secondly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s tireless exploitation of any space left to him.
United started with what resembled a 442 formation. This seemed to be an effort by Jose Mourinho to take advantage of his opponents poor form by flooding attacking areas with players.
However, this was quickly changed when it became clear that Mata and Mhkitaryan were isloated on the flanks and Rashford was often drifting wide anyway. It was switched to more of a 4231:
This switch performed a number of useful functions but most importantly it brought Mhkitaryan into the centre of the action. Playing as a number 10 slightly behind Ibrahimovic he was able to take advantage of the space which is often left when the big striker drops deeper to receive the ball. It was this space which led to United’s first goal. Mhkitaryan, was able to latch onto a Chris Smalling header and knock the ball past Robert Huth near the halfway line leaving Leicester’s defense in his wake.
This was also a good example of the issues with Leicester’s organisation in the game. Last season, Leicester were able to snuff out potential attacks of this manner by playing a deep line and having the indomitable N’Golo Kante as a screen for the back four. Whilst Wilfred Ndidi had a busy game and covered space as well as can be expected it is very difficult to replace a player of the standard of Kante. It’s no accident that Chelsea have been so comfortable on the ball this season with a midfielder so adept at breaking up counter attacks. The problem for Leicester is that they no longer have the resiliency to see out tough games and teams are more capable of dropping deep or effectively retaining possession to stifle the attacking intent of Vardy and Mahrez.
Leicester lined up in the beginning of this game very similar to the 4231 which Manchester United would go on to take up.
The problems with this stemmed specifically from the way in which United were able to control the game. They penned Leicester back with Marcus Rashford and Antonio Valencia pushing up the pitch into any available space. Then Mkhitaryan was able to drive back Leicesters central midfielders and force them into deeper areas. This, along with Pogba and Herrera driving forward with the ball, created a gap between Leicesters midfield and defense. Okazaki couldn’t get high enough up the pitch and left Vardy isolated. On top of this, the pace of Eric Bailly was extremely effective in covering the space which Leicester exploited so excellently last season. United used possession well and moved the ball a lot making more than double the passes of the Foxes (664 to 319). They held an organised line when they had the ball and resisted the temptation to push players high up the pitch and take away space for themselves. This was an issue last week against Hull.
Generally, Manchester United’s vigilance and positioning allowed them to keep Leicester at bay whilst their quality shone through. The play was funneled through Henrikh Mkhitaryan who ran with the ball well and pulled defenders out of position. Special mentions should also go to Ibrahimovic, who got his 15th goal of the season and was typically calm and intelligent throughout the game, and Mata and Valencia whose partnership on the right hand side consistently created space and penned back Musa and Fuchs.
Overall, it was a dominating United performance and one which served to show Leicester’s continual decline.