As Manchester United’s players loaded the penalty area for the corner kick that would break Leicester’s resistance, Jose Mourinho wandered over to Craig Shakespeare and patted him on the back. Perhaps it was the continuation of a private joke with his opposite number; perhaps it was to signal his admiration at the constant touchline cajoling that had, by and large, done the trick during 70 minutes of mounting frustration for the home team.
Or perhaps, somehow, Mourinho knew what was coming.
Within seconds Marcus Rashford had evaporated the nerves and most of the doubt, too. Nobody would cast this as United’s finest performance, but that would be beside the point. Last season they were drawing games like this. They would batter teams that set up at Old Trafford to snatch a draw only to come away shaking their heads, and it cost them a place in the top four. This time, though, their pressure brought a solution in the form of a 2-0 win and if that becomes a recurring theme, then United will be serious title contenders.
“We didn’t have many matches last season where we played 90 minutes with the control we had today,” Mourinho said in his postmatch news conference. There were plenty where they failed to put defensive opponents to the sword, though, and when Romelu Lukaku missed from the penalty spot early in the second half, the mind turned to a prime example last March when Zlatan Ibrahimovic failed from the spot against 10-man Bournemouth in a 1-1 draw that was characteristic of United’s ills.
This time around, there was never quite the sense that Lukaku’s miss — or, put more charitably, Kasper Schmeichel’s fine save — would derail United. Mourinho noted that his team kept up the pressure in the immediate aftermath, avoiding the “little collapse” that such a disappointment can bring. While it did embolden Leicester enough for Riyad Mahrez to fire a couple of rare shots on goal, the United manager had a point. They were never seriously under the cosh and the impression was that further openings would come.
“Were Leicester dangerous against Arsenal [when they lost 4-3]? Yes,” Mourinho observed. “I watched that match three times. Were they dangerous against us? No, because of us.”
United have struggled for a clear pattern of play in recent years if we sideline Louis van Gaal’s sterile possession football as an experiment that failed, but one appears to be emerging and it was the key to their dominance here.
Its heartbeat is in the centre of midfield, an area where United have too often been bland but now look physically and technically imposing. Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba overwhelmed Wilfred Ndidi and Matty James on both counts; Ndidi is a particularly fine prospect but looked cowed here, shrinking in comparison to his counterparts and compounding a difficult afternoon by failing to pick up Rashford for the opener.
Matic’s stability gives Pogba the scope he needs to roam and create and in the first half, the France international found space for seven shots on goal of varying danger. There is more clarity to United’s shape and style at the moment; there was also a better tempo with the ball than they displayed against massed defensive ranks during 2016-17. Anthony Martial produced a lively performance in his first start of the campaign and it was eventually enough to wear Leicester down.
Against that, it is fair to point out that that Plan A didn’t work perfectly. Rashford was introduced for Juan Mata three minutes before his goal because his possession-based approach was waning in effectiveness and Mourinho wanted “a runner with and without the ball” to combine with Lukaku. Mourinho didn’t even see Rashford score, having turned his attention from Shakespeare to the planned introduction of Jesse Lingard. Had he not been able to shuffle his pack so effectively it is conceivable that Leicester, marshaled by the outstanding Harry Maguire, would have held out.
“We knew we’d have to frustrate [Man United] coming here,” said Shakespeare. “For large chunks of the game, 70 to 75 minutes, we did: we frustrated and restricted. But the big moments, they capitalised on.”
The latter point told the tale. A corner and a deflection — regardless of whether or not Marouane Fellaini intended to score United’s second — are not sexy ways to win a football match, but the best teams find different ways to get the job done. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s flag kick delivery, his fifth assist of the season already, was exceptional and Rashford’s clip past Schmeichel was unerring. It was not the exhilarating exploitation of space that eventually overwhelmed both West Ham and Swansea, mind you, but nobody who saw Leicester retreat ever deeper from kickoff could have expected it to be.
Even if frayed edges remain, the feeling of gathering momentum at United is palpable. Mourinho knows well the benefits of a fast start and now wants everyone around him on board. His final piece of touchline theatre, within moments of Fellaini’s goal, was to cup his ears and shrug his shoulders at the supporters in the stand behind him. The crowd was “very quiet today,” he complained afterward.
Maybe there have been a few too many false dawns at Old Trafford in the past half-decade to rouse Mourinho’s public just yet, but the manner in which their team have purred through the first three games suggests that United are creating something worth putting their weight behind.
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