Manchester United needed to win. The Red Devils were under intense media scrutiny, and all eyes were turned towards Old Trafford as they came up against reigning champions Leicester City. Losses to Manchester City and Feyenoord were followed up by a spiritless defeat at Watford, and the critics were lining up. They simply needed to respond.
The game started fairly evenly, with both sides jostling for possession and looking to find a way through. There was the odd chance here and there, but neither side realistically looked like breaking the deadlock. After a while, nerves looked to be showing for United, who could well have conceded after some defensive errors. Leicester looked to be slightly ahead, but it was not to last.
It was Daley Blind who provided the spark. United won a corner, and the Dutchman looped the ball into the box. It was, in a word, perfect. The out-swinging corner hit Chris Smalling on the edge of the six-yard box, and the header flew towards the bottom corner, in a place where Ron-Robert Zieler couldn’t reach it.
Near miss: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (centre) misses the target with a volley.
After the goal, United took the game by the scruff of the neck in an emphatic manner. The chances came in quick and fast. Marcus Rashford was played through after Jesse Lingard’s pressure opened Leicester up on the break, but the shot was well wide. A minute later, Rashford had another chance as Paul Pogba’s header allowed him to try an overhead kick. He missed. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, normally so clinical in front of goal, made a rare mistake with a volley after Pogba’s beautiful chip over the top.
Pogba was pulling the strings all over the park, moving into more advanced positions and letting his skills do the talking. He had been under more pressure than anyone after a string of poor efforts following his world record move, and he needed to change something. On this day, everything went right. He barely made a mistake as he sprayed the ball around the park, and his deft chips over the defence opened Leicester up time and again.
Pogba was again at the heart of the second goal, which came less than ten minutes before the break and triggered an incredible surge which rendered the second half unnecessary. Juan Mata was the catalyst, finding Pogba on the edge of the box with surgical precision. Pogba then made one of the passes on the game, chipping the man in front of him off a step and finding Jesse Lingard, who brought the ball to ground under some pressure. Mata kept running through, and his first time finish was unstoppable as it flew past Zieler into the back of the net.
Goal: Paul Pogba (second from right) heads in Manchester United’s fourth goal.
United weren’t finished yet. This time, they caught Leicester out with a corner, leaving Rashford with one of the easiest chances he will ever get. Blind seemed to be in no hurry to play in the corner, and Leicester bought it hook, line and sinker. Mata caught his two markers napping as he received it on the near post, and he played it past Zieler to find Rashford directly in front inside the six-yard box. If he had missed, it would have been a miracle.
United continued to attack, and soon they had won another corner. Blind’s delivery was, once again, perfect, and this time he picked out Pogba as the Frenchman made his way into the box. Pogba was minded by Christian Fuchs, and the diminutive left back didn’t have a shot against the size and strength of the most expensive player in the world. Pogba drove the header into the bottom corner, leaving United with an unassailable advantage.
Three goals in the space of five minutes had left Leicester without any hope, and all illusions that Claudio Ranieri would try for a result (if it was even possible to get one) were shattered when he removed Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy at half time. Leicester were shell-shocked, but United saw no reason to push the matter any further, and they played without any real intensity. They didn’t need to.
Leicester pulled one back on the hour, with Demarai Gray netting his first career Premier League goal with a strike of incredible quality. The young winger took on Jesse Lingard outside the area before drilling it into the top corner from range. David de Gea had no chance as the ball bent away from him, but it didn’t matter. It was the best goal of the game, but it was to have no bearing on the result.
United were content to take the air out of the game, and Leicester just wanted it to end. They had suffered enough embarrassment for one day. The win was emphatic, and it signalled a return to form for United after a fortnight of disappointments. Whether it will last only time will tell, but no-one would have beaten United on this day. They were purring, and could simply do no wrong. They needed to win. They did.
Manchester – Old Trafford
Manchester United 4 (Smalling 22, Mata 37, Rashford 40, Pogba 42)
Leicester City 1 (Gray 60)
Referee: Mike Dean
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Valencia, Bailly, Smalling, Blind; Herrera, Pogba; Lingard (Carrick 78), Mata (Young 87), Rashford (Rooney 83); Ibrahimovic.
Leicester City (4-4-2): Zieler – Simpson, Morgan, Huth, Fuchs; Mahrez (King 46), Amartey, Drinkwater, Albrighton (Schlupp 62); Vardy (Gray 46), Slimani.
1. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba was in control from the start, pushing up into dangerous positions and creating chances aplenty with his wonderful skill. His increased licence to roam worked wonders, and he barely made a mistake as he sprayed the ball around in attack. He was the commander for United, and he made life incredibly difficult for Leicester.
2. Ander Herrera (Manchester United)
Herrera was the yin to Pogba’s yang, collecting the ball deep in midfield and feeding it to his partner in central midfield. He was excellent throughout, and his ability to win the ball back created numerous chances for his teammates. He formed a brilliant combination with Pogba, and will look to keep that up in weeks to come.
3. Juan Mata (Manchester United)
Mata was everywhere in attack, moving from left to right as he saw fit. He worked his way into plenty of dangerous positions, and scored an excellent goal after combining well with Pogba and Lingard. He had plenty of energy as he moved around the pitch, and will take plenty of confidence from his performance.
4. Daley Blind (Manchester United)
Blind was excellent throughout, setting up three goals with his devastatingly accurate corner kicks. He pulled the strings from left back, hitting long passes down the line and finding Pogba in the middle when he needed to, and he can take confidence from an excellent performance.
5. Demarai Gray (Leicester City)
Gray was a shining light in an otherwise forgettable afternoon for Leicester, and he scored their only goal with an excellent strike from range. He came on at half-time and gave a spark that was lacking in the opening period, and he caused problems for United with his pace and liveliness.