A game that you could feel the nerves jump through to you. Essentially a Champions League play-off vs one of our closest challengers, Leicester City. Very little excitement was happening and it was more like a boxing match where they sized each other up. United were able to hold their nerves, as both goals came from catching Leicester on the ball in the defensive third. Greenwood’s interception led to a penalty, that Bruno Fernandes tucked away to put us into the lead. The Foxes probed and prodded but found it hard to get that elusive goal. Lingard was the interceptor for the second and he put it into an empty net, as he took it off Schmeichel, to get his first league goal since Solskjaer’s first game in charge of Man Utd.
It has become an obvious tactic since the Southampton game that keeping the middle of the pitch compact against Man Utd will cut off their main supply line, which is the creativity of Pogba and Fernandes, who in turn allow Greenwood and Rashford to come in off the line with out-to-in runs. Leicester came into the game with a 3 at the back and they changed a little in the middle, playing with a two rather than a front three, instead employing three in the middle of the pitch. The only in roads that were made in the first half were when Pogba would finally join the attacks after settled possession had been established, with either his dexterous footwork or passing ability. The link man between the attack and midfield, Bruno Fernandes, had a very bad day, in which his passing was more off than it has been in the recent games. It was very difficult but with the middle extremely compact, it meant the ball was constantly going the sides. The full backs were given the ball in the middle of the pitch and so it was up to them to take the initiative. Williams and Wan Bissaka failed to do so, repeatedly turning inwards and not feeding the tight passes between the lines into the front line. It shows one of two things for next seasons: a tactic has to be employed so that we are able to stretch teams with our wingers or full backs so that we can have open spaces in the middle and the full backs need to get better on the ball. Williams is already at a disadvantage playing on the wrong side of the pitch but even then, his passing has to be more progressive and with more intent than he has shown since the lockdown period. Wan-Bissaka however, is on his stronger side, and yet he plays with such tentativeness and just lacks in enough technical security to even contribute in build up sufficiently. Teams are not only using him as a pressing trigger, as Chelsea quite clearly displayed in the Europa League, but teams are also funnelling our play to his side as they have a level of assurance that little will come of it. It is an area of the game he needs to work on, not just the final third of putting in crosses. That part he is ample enough for a right back. It is building from the back and the second phase of play that he is especially crippling to the team. A right winger, the likes of Sancho, may provide less pressure on him but all detailed above will still need to be worked on.
Many were critical of the lack of gamesmanship and mentality in getting the three points in that Southampton game. Today, it was a credit of the players that in a game where they did not play well, they actually managed to show all the nous that was needed in order to get over the line. Things such as the standing on the ball from Pogba when Leicester tried to take a quick free kick, something that earned him a yellow card but was beneficial to the team. Our defending of set pieces was impressive, in stark contrast to the rest of the season, but what was even more impressive was the fact that we not only managed to clear the ball, we were able to draw fouls on those set pieces to slow the game for Leicester. These were all the things off the ball and in the heads of the players that was needed. But there is gamesmanship on the ball as well, more known as possession. It was still lacking. We tried to play the ball out the back when we are not good at it and at times it could have invited pressure, one moment leading to a dangerous free kick. It is important that we are able to play into the wider areas, with quicker pace from the restart. A longer ball from the keeper into the sides might not be conducive to possession football to most people but as you have seen with Ederson for Man City, those balls are on and it helps drag teams back, also getting the ball away from the back. Personnel changes are probably needed in order to make this a reality but being able to hold onto the ball in those difficult moments will be crystalised in the Champions League against much better opposition.
Icy at the back
Much has been made of the defence in recent weeks but one player at the back was the epitome of coolness in his defensive actions today. Lindelof has been criminal of weak moments: indecision, lack of aggression, penchant to get done by tricky players yet today, up against the Premier League’s top scorer in Jamie Vardy, he was magnificent. Apart from a yellow card out wide, Vardy got no change out the Swedish centre back. Even outside of that individual battle, he was magnificent. Dicey moments in the beginning of the second half, he stepped up in blocking a cross where Vardy was free in the box. His partner beside him had a poor start in the game but Maguire grew into the game and by the end, they were both performing well as each other. Matic also, shielded well in front of the back four, even if he showed the same drawbacks of getting caught on the ball and passing the ball straight to the opposition