Manchester United brushed aside defending Premier League champions Leicester City at the King Power Stadium to extend their unbeaten league run to 15 games and move within two points of the top four. Goals from Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic within the space of 88 seconds towards the end of the first half undid all of Leicester’s good work before Juan Mata added a third for the visitors amid some ordinary defending by Claudio Ranieri’s side.
The result keeps the champions just two points off the bottom of the table and facing a tough battle to avoid relegation – which would make them the first team in the Premier League era and since Manchester City in 1938 to go down the season after winning the top-division title.
We bring forward the talking points from a feisty game at East Midlands:
#1 Leicester start the brighter of the two teams in a competitive game
The hosts began the game well, with the likes of Riyad Mahrez using his fleet-footedness to give makeshift left-back Marcos Rojo a stern examination. United were slightly sloppy in midfield, with Ander Herrera losing possession in a dangerous position, allowing Leicester to break and force Eric Bailly to make a defensive tackle to prevent Ahmed Musa from going through on goal.
Wes Morgan came close to scoring from a free-kick, while Jamie Vardy looked to press United’s defenders in order to utilise his pace during a potential counter-attack.
With both teams in need of points for different reasons, it was no surprise to see a fiery contest with tackles flying in and words being exchanged between opposition players. Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba and Cristian Fuchs went into the book for high tackles while Zlatan Ibrahimovic was constantly involved in altercations with some of the Foxes’ players. The final result was well short of dramatic, but not the approach both teams had coming into this fixture.
#2 Basic defensive lapses cost Leicester dear
Though United deserved to win the game over the 90 minutes, the manner in which the champions conceded each goal was alarming. The first goal saw Robert Huth at fault, charging forward in an attempt to beat Henrikh Mkhitaryan to a loose ball when he should have stayed put. Once Mkhitaryan got the first touch, Huth was dumped out of the game and the Armenian went on to go one-on-one with Kasper Schmeichel and beat him before any other Leicester defender came across.
The second goal – scored 88 seconds later – was a result of ball watching from the Foxes’ defenders, allowing Zlatan to sidefoot home from an Antonio Valencia cross while in between three Leicester shirts.
The third strike was the most puzzling, with Christian Fuchs failing to track his runner in Juan Mata – giving the Spaniard the easy task of slotting in unchallenged past a helpless Schmeichel.
Replays showed that Wes Morgan played Mata onside when the ball was played to him by Mkhitaryan. The same defence that was so uncompromising last season appeared all over the shop on this occasion and Ranieri must address this issue soon if they are to pick up the points they need to survive the drop.
#3 Manchester United benefit from moving the ball quickly
Jose Mourinho’s side did well to weather the Leicester storm in the opening 25 minutes. Once they found their feet, their performance reflected their story of this season – possession, a plethora of chances created but lacking in the finish. However, once they upped the tempo towards the end of the first half, they reaped the rewards – scoring twice in no time to go into the break firmly in control.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s presence of mind helped them score the opener, while Christian Fuchs failed to stop an onrushing Antonio Valencia's cross from entering the box for United’s second goal. United were ruthless in the second half, stretching Leicester’s shattered defence to add another to their tally and give them the breathing space to see the game out.
Before the game, Mourinho had questioned the winning mentality of his side after three straight league draws. His players responded in perfect fashion, moving the ball with pace and intent – the ever-reliable Ander Herrera orchestrating their style of play that from midfield and the likes of Juan Mata and Paul Pogba always threatening to cut Leicester open with each attack.
#4 Jamie Vardy cuts an isolated figure in a drab Leicester performance
With United increasing their dominance as the game progressed, what became a familiar sight on the pitch was striker Jamie Vardy cutting a frustrated and isolated figure in United’s half. Desperate to get on the scoresheet after a long drought, the reigning Football Writers’ Player of the Season was forced to sit deep and try winning the ball from his opponents so that he could open up a goal-scoring chance.
Once the hosts went three down, the body language of the players plunged – which slowly but surely decreased Vardy’s involvement in the game as a striker at least. The players looked lost, frazzled and horribly short of confidence, a saddening contrast to last season, where teams would fear Vardy’s pace on the counter-attack - which was the source of a fair share of their goals which helped them clinch a title.
With relegation unbelievably looming large, the manager and coaching staff face an uphill task of instilling some motivation into this group of players, who, at the moment look a defeated bunch.
#5 Eric Bailly exceptional on his first start since returning from international duty
While the emphasis was mostly on United’s attacking prowess, one should not rule out United’s solid performance at the back as a vital factor in the victory on Sunday. With Phil Jones out of the game with an injury, Mourinho decided to field his other pair of centre-backs – Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly – who are familiar with each other owing to their partnership in the first three months of the season – and shift Rojo to left-back to avoid him from playing at centre-half with an unfamiliar partner.
The move worked perfectly, as Smalling and Bailly communicated with each other effectively to come away from the King Power Stadium with a clean slate.
Eric Bailly, in particular, was exceptional during a period of Leicester pressure, putting away crosses and attempted through-passes with conviction on his first league start since returning from African Cup of Nations’ duty. He made a potential goal-saving tackle to deny Musa from having a go at goal after Leicester benefitted from Ander Herrera’s rare misplaced pass.
The performance showed that he didn’t need any time to adapt to the challenges of defending in the Premier League after being away for a period of four weeks. He is a definite mainstay for United come the business end of the season, with Jose Mourinho’s side still competing for four trophies.