Counter v Counter
This was an intriguing match up between the 2 of the best counter attacking teams in the Premier League. Both teams lined up with four at the back and two sitters in front of their backlines. Followed by two wide men and a striker with one man in the hole. Both sides were very cagey and both were equally patient for their chances to come. United with a string of away wins under their belts and Leicester with some big scalps this season. Which one would flinch first.
Bruno Fernandez only took 60 seconds to make his mark on the game with an inch perfect cross that found Rashford 6 yards out. He somehow managed to steer the header over the bar when it looked easier to put it on target. Leicester were more potent on the left side through fullback Castagne and Barnes taking advantage of the missing Wan-Bissaka. Neither side would commit too many forward and this would be evident through the whole game with Fred and McTominay on one side with Tielemans and Ndidi on the other.
Lack of creativity
With both sides playing two blockers the creative side of the game fell to Fernandez and Maddison to try and get their team a competitive edge. Fernandez was clearly the winner here with Maddison unable to make any inroads as Leicester struggled at times to play from the back. Tielemans was their only outlet at times with the majority of space being on the flanks. When they did create it was overlapping fullbacks or the pacey Barnes that was the outlet but they really struggled to find anything for Vardy to chase.
United also had their creativity worries. Their backline is not too comfortable on the ball with Shaw perhaps the most likely to venture forward or pick a pass from left back. The real issue is that both Fred and McTominay are the same flavour of defensive mid. While i understand the formula that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is working off and reasoning for having two defensive players protecting his backline. I also think that this is one of the main reasons that United are not at the same level as say City and Liverpool. Even if you compare to Chelsea they can mix and match Kovacic with Kante or Jorginho. While i accept that Fred and McTominay are both very good at giving a blanket of cover neither are capable of dictating the tempo of the game.
In his interview before the game Solskjaer said they had success the last time against the foxes by pressing high and to mirror that this time around. United did try to press Leicester from kickouts and this is where perhaps they lacked a little courage in the game. They pressed high but not with enough conviction or numbers to turnover a possession that could hurt. There were numerous times that Johnny Evans was forced to simply play the ball into the lower stand. After United scored Leicester looked ragged at times trying to find a telling pass in their defensive third. They were there for the taking.
Luke Shaw had the measure of Albrighton and with Maddison unable to find a yard this was the perfect time to push on and secure a second goal. Instead this game of cat and mouse took a twist. On the half hour mark it was Leicester who pressed high after Maguire awkwardly cleared a ball to Fernandez. The Portugese chose an untimely moment to try and nutmeg Ndidi who then fed Barnes. He unleashed a ferocious shot from distance which upon first instance looked like a keeper error. But in replay turned out to be the one time in the game McTominay was caught on his heels.
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Edison Cavani was a game changer again yesterday. Fans were a little underwhelmed when he signed in the summer but he has shown quality on the pitch. Anthony Martial is simply not good enough to lead the United line in a nutshell. He can do a decent job at times but he has never had consistency in 5 years. It was no surprise Cavani was the one that unlocked the defence for the second goal. I’d also wager that he would have put away both of Rashford’s chances. Although he probably wouldn’t have had the pace for the breakaway shot.
The other strange decision was Lindelof at fullback. He was caught for pace on numerous occasions with Barnes too hot to handle. Of course Daniel James perhaps should have been helping him at times especially with the overlapping Castagne. The right side of the field did not have the correct balance but it was the left side that gave up the goal. Shaw had a different proposition to deal with when Perez came on and his clever run was not picked up before he crossed for Vardy.
For Leicester this is not quite an issue as they have already found their method of playing. It seems that even before Brendan Rodgers arrived they used Vardy in the same manner as they do now. The difference is of course that they are far less direct as before. They play from the back and use the wingers and overlapping fullbacks to open up opportunities. With Tielemans and Madison they also have a plan B as both are useful with the ball at their feet. They are really punching above their weight right now being ahead of both Chelsea and Spurs.
United are a more interesting project to watch evolve. Since Fernandez has come in they are simply a huge threat going forward. He is the glue that binds it all together. The problem is that they are hugely reliant on his services. Even against Leicester he found space and time of a premium and was frozen out of the game at times. Rashford is the other shining light for United. He has become a fierce threat on the wing and has finally put to bed any talk of his best position.
The right flank is one of the positions up for grabs with James and Greenwood both battling for a chance. This seems to be an area judging by the pursuit of Sancho in the summer and you can see why. Van de Beek and Pogba are becoming the odd ones out at the moment for central places and you would especially fear for the Dutchman with the lack of gametime.
The other six positions are when they must think about strengthening. It is a case of good players but not great players. Good defenders but not potent when in attacking positions. If the team relies on Bruno to create in the final third then they are over reliant also for the wingers to be solely creative on the flanks. Most of the best modern fullbacks have the ability to attack with pace and power but also to be creative. Robertson from Liverpool and Cancelo for City are two great examples of top quality fullbacks. Wan Bissaka who would be a regular starter for United is excellent on the back foot but loose going forward. Shaw shows signs of good forward play at times but can’t seem to find the next level.
United need to decide over the coming months if and how they will evolve to the next level. Will that mean upgrading their defensive pairing for better on the ball quality? Bringing in a better ball playing center back? Changing out one of the wingers for a more durable full back? Obviously it is rare to change 6 players in one window but they do need to bring in some more quality.
United have found a good stable method of play for now. Something that has taken Solskjaer time to get right. I would still not count them as serious title rivals to Liverpool and City though. These teams have extra strings to their bow. United need to find a more adventurous method to play against the lesser teams. Teams that stack 10 men behind the ball. Teams that will not come out to play like Leicester. To beat these teams consistently they will need more possession and more creativity.
Leicester will hope that they can sustain a run this time to move them closer to the Top4. Last season was crushing to see them fall from such a great position at the last few hurdles. But they are showing better signs of maturing by rescuing that point yesterday.