"That is incredible!"
The Premier League is back.
And after a summer of discontent, transfer rumours, supposed internal unrest between manager and executive, the season could not have arrived any quicker for Manchester United. Football is back and at least for 90 odd minutes, fans and players can put aside all the politics of the game and enjoy it for what it is.
The football on the pitch.
For Manchester United, the result was exactly what they needed to remind their fans and perhaps even their own players and coaching staff that this is still a good squad that Jose Mourinho has at his disposal. The transfer window may not have panned out the way that Mourinho had hoped for, but how often does a manager always gets what he wants during transfer period?
The team today showed that they are still a formidable one with plenty of talent across the field and are still being led by one of the most tactically adept managers in modern football.
From the game, the impact of a victory could not be underestimated for the Red Devils. A victory was absolutely vital for them here as anything less would’ve further dampened the mood around the club following a chaotic preseason. Plenty of their younger players played well while their experienced stars inspired and led from the front. There will be plenty for Mourinho to be happy with from the result while there are still a few things for his side to improve on going forward in the season.
1. Right back
For a large portion of the first half, after United’s opening goal. Worryingly, United failed to create any solid counter-attacking opportunities and lost the ball frequently to the away side who then proceeded to attack heavily down United’s right flank at Matteo Darmian.
The Italian right back looked uncomfortable at times against the skill of Demarai Gray and Claude Puel’s side sensed it. They attacked Darmian relentlessly but he was luckily supported well by Fred, Andreas Pereira and his centre-backs.
In attack, Darmian was wasteful with the ball at times with his passes failing to reach Alexis Sanchez, particularly in the first half. His second half was an improvement but United had a lot more of the ball and he was required to defend less.
He did not really provide enough supporting runs and one feels that he only still holds a spot on the squad because of Ed Woodward’s failure to land another fullback and also because of the injuries to Diogo Dalot and Antonio Valencia.
1. Paul Pogba
Pogba is back, and more importantly, his performances from this game indicate that he has carried over his form from the World Cup. Seeing him starting must have sent a wave of relief around Old Trafford with rumours of unrest during the summer surely causing many fans to be worried about the state of mind of their biggest talent on the squad.
He was also given the armband by Mourinho to the delight of United fans, and his faith was repaid with a man of the match performance from the World Cup champion. Pogba played with flair and responsibility where his through ball led to the penalty which he duly dispatched himself with authority.
His celebration was muted showing that this season Pogba means business.
When United were pushed back by Leicester after the opening goal, their captain stood up to take command of the backline and clear many of the threats coming in from the set piece. Pogba even played a sweeping role for periods of the game to provide an outlet option for his defence, linking the defence with the midfield, helping out Pereira and showing that the captain’s armband belonged to the right player on the night.
The line-up fielded by Mourinho also allowed Pogba to play his more natural game with Fred and Pereira affording him the protection and back up he requires in order to push forward when required. This is the habitat that the Frenchman strives in and the signing of Fred by Mourinho cannot be underestimated.
The manager and the player might have differed in opinion at times last season but there is no doubt the signing of Fred was to make life easier for both Mourinho and Pogba. Both know that Pogba is a long-term project for United and it’s performances like today that vindicate this view.
As Mourinho has said, the challenge for the Frenchman now is to carry this form consistently throughout the season.
2. Pereira gets his chance
For all the clouds that hovered over United’s preseason, whether they were necessary or not, there was a source of brightness that emerged which was the form of young gun Andreas Pereira.
Playing the role of a number 6 during the tour of the US, the young Brazilian impressed enough to warrant a starting spot in the line-up against Leicester where, such was his performance, that he saw out the entire match. Pereira was deployed in a deeper position than usual as he played between the fulcrum of the midfield and the defence in the role that Nemanja Matic occupies.
It is surely a sign of Mourinho’s trust and faith in Pereira that he would entrust the young man with the responsibility of protecting the defence while providing a passing outlet to transition into midfield.
Pereira showed poise and responsibility on the field, never playing the unnecessary pass unless he had to and never being rushed when on the ball. His reading of the game was composed and the signs are there that if he can continue to grow at his current rate then he will surely be the heir to Matic’s spot in the line-up.
The days, however, are still early but the signs are positive.
A sign of a player who plays well in this position is that he almost has to go unnoticed, a fine exemplifier of this being Michael Carrick where the Englishman was not fully appreciated until the latter stages of his career, and that is exactly how Pereira played his game on Friday evening.
He played the passes he had to and he defended the space in front of the defence responsibly. It is easy for a young player to want to impress their manager by bursting forward, hitting a long pass or shooting from range which would leave their defensive space open but Pereira demonstrated the maturity to restrain from these temptations to play the game that he needed for United.
Mourinho is a big fan of players who are disciplined and most importantly, buy into his tactical philosophy of rigid structural play and a team-first mentality. Pereira has begun his first steps toward impressing his manager and showing that he can be the man to be entrusted with this responsibility.
If he can continue on as he has, a starting place in United’s midfield beckons.
3. Centre back
You would be forgiven for thinking that United have no centre-backs in their squad given how desperate they were to try and sign one before the transfer window closed but watching the game against Leicester, the pairing of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof went a long way towards alleviating those concerns.
Bailly is United’s best centre-back on their roster and should be one of the first names on the team sheets. The Ivorian is strong, possesses enough pace and can hit a pass, however, the issue that might have caused Mourinho to search for another defender was due to the inconsistencies of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Lindelof last campaign.
Against Leicester, Lindelof surely staked his case to be the main beside Bailly for the years to come. The big Swede, another that is coming back from an impressive World Cup, was strong and commanding across the goal with a highlight of his night being a crucial intervention that stopped Duke Iheanacho from being one on one with David De Gea.
There was an air of desperation and conviction from Lindelof last night that was perhaps not displayed last season and now with a strong World Cup behind him, United are desperate for him to stamp his place in the side and form a formidable back line with Bailly.
As serviceable as Jones and Smalling have been for United since Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic vacated their positions, Lindelof was recruited with a long-term view of standing alongside Bailly and the young man should aim to build on tonight’s performance.
Overall, the backline of United played well enough and were rarely beaten perhaps on three occasions where De Gea saved from both James Maddison and also Jamie Vardy’s close-range attempt after Luke Shaw’s failure to clear and the goal itself, which was unlucky. Improvement will only happen with time and if United are to bridge the gap to their neighbours they will need their backline to alleviate the burden on David De Gea.
4. Jose Mourinho
Apart from his disastrous final season at Chelsea, Mourinho is a man who knows how to win games regardless of what is happening on and off the pitch with the club and today this game was no different.
His team selection was spot on making the right moves in rewarding Pogba the captaincy while giving youth a chance in Shaw, Pereira and Marcus Rashford. Although some would say he didn’t have a choice, he could have easily gone for the safe option of playing the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Anthony Martial and Ashley Young instead.
In terms of his tactics, Mourinho set his team up well and they took apart Leicester with ruthless precision in the opening few minutes before being rewarded with a goal. When Leicester attacked, Mourinho’s men were compact and only allowed realistically one good chance for the Foxes which was the shot for Maddison, where otherwise the team dealt comfortably with everything the Foxes threw at them.
There will be criticisms of United’s more languid play after the opening goal but the issue should not be so much to do with United’s strategy but rather their execution. In their opening two games last season where they hammered eight goals across two matches, pundits lauded United for their play.
However, if they were to watch the games again, the tactics deployed were not too dissimilar than last night’s game against Leicester which was to push for an early goal then sit back and break on the counter and punish their opposition for over-committing. The issue was for United that they did not move well enough off the ball to drag the Foxes out of position to allow space for the attackers to run at last night, which might come down to a lack of match fitness and game time together following a disrupted preseason.
Proof that the tactic worked was in the second half where Mourinho made the adjustments and there was more space for Sanchez, Pogba and Juan Mata to exploit which duly resulted in a second goal and what should have been a third from Romelu Lukaku’s gilt-edged chance.
Perhaps though the most positive aspect about Mourinho’s night that should be taken away by United fans was not his tactical shrewdness but rather the passion that he displayed when Luke Shaw broke through to seal the game. After months of negativity and downcast from Mourinho, here finally, was a man who showed that there is still a fire and belief in him that his team can challenge and inspire.
An angry Mourinho would even be better than a miserable Mourinho, let alone a passionate one, and United fans will want to see this side to him more often this campaign.