MAN UTD’S MIDFIELD
As far as responses go, it was pretty much perfect.
Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United side headed into Saturday afternoon’s clash with Premier League champions Leicester City under pressure to deliver, with three defeats in their last four outings in all competitions prompting some to question whether the Red Devils have what it takes to launch a sustained challenge for the title for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson vacated the Old Trafford dugout in 2013. Only time will tell whether or not that proves to be the case, but a convincing 4-1 victory over Claudio Ranieri’s charges was a welcome step in the right direction after a difficult couple of weeks.
United began the match a little nervously in front of their own supporters, with Leicester looking the more threatening of the two teams in the opening 20 minutes; Chris Smalling’s headed goal from Daley Blind’s corner shortly after settled the hosts’ down, however, and Mourinho’s men went on to dominate the remainder of the first half. Three of their four goals may have come from set-piece situations, but United also produced some fantastic football in open play, with midfielders Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba and Juan Mata particularly impressive in a revamped engine room.
Much of the pre-match talk had focused on whether or not Wayne Rooney would continue in the No.10 role after his poor start to the season, with numerous fans and pundits calling for the club captain to be dropped to the substitutes’ bench. It was certainly not much of a surprise to see Mata replace the 30-year- old in the role behind lone striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and on the evidence of Saturday’s display it will be difficult for Rooney to regain his spot in the team (so too Marouane Fellaini, who was also left out of the starting XI for the first time in the top flight this term).
Indeed, Mata was excellent in his preferred position – he has not been used in a central attacking role for a consistent period throughout his time in the northwest – scoring one goal, setting up another and generally causing problems with his neat distribution and clever positioning between the lines. Pogba and Herrera’s passing was also terrific: the former played several brilliant balls in behind Leicester’s back four, while the latter was very effective in possession in deeper areas of the pitch.
There were times in the second half when United did lose a bit of control – Leicester enjoyed a bright spell after Demarai Gray had pulled a goal back with a stunning long-range strike into the top corner of the net – and fielding the same midfield trio in the bigger games could lead to United being too open and vulnerable to quick transitions through the centre of the park. This was a much-improved display from the Red Devils overall, though, with the performances of Herrera, Pogba and Mata helping Mourinho and his team to deliver the ideal retort to the criticism they have faced in the last fortnight.