A season can feel like an eternity in football, as Leicester City’s title win seems a distant memory. Manchester United ran out easy 3-0 winners against the champions with goals from Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Juan Mata. Jose Mourinho opted to setup his United side in a 4-4-2 formation, with Michael Carrick dropping to the bench. The Portuguese decided to setup like for like with Claudio Ranieri, in order to put pressure on centre halves Robert Huth and Wes Morgan, however – the shift to 4-2-3-1 gave United more space and resulted in the opening goal – a superb solo effort by the opportunistic Mkhitaryan.
United doubled their lead within ninety seconds when Ibrahimovic notched up his 15th league goal of the season after some dismal defending from the home side. For a match that for the first thirty minutes was a tight cagey affair, United had scored two goals just before half time. Mata made it certain for the visitors with a low shot following a superb move, again involving Mkhitaryan – who played a beautiful ball in behind the out of sorts Christian Fuchs.
Mourinho was pleased with the performance of his side, but heaped special praise for the Armenian following his goal and assist. Leicester, who not long ago pulled off one of the greatest stories in football, find themselves starring down the barrel of a relegation scrap.
Mkhitaryan’s goal was a top class finish to give United the lead just before half time. The attacking midfielder began the game on the left hand side in a 4-4-2, with Ibrahimovic up top alongside Marcus Rashford. United’s number 22 was poor against Hull City in the week and was largely ineffective in the 0-0 draw, however – his move from his usual wide berth for United to a number ten was to change the game and after twenty minutes, Mourinho made his move. It was just after the shift that United had their first real chance, when Rashford blazed over from Mkhitaryan’s cross. The youngster, who had not scored a league goal since the 4-1 victory over Leicester City at Old Trafford, came close again ten minutes later, but was thwarted by Kasper Schmeichel in the home goal.
The build up to United’s opener was slightly scrappy after a looping ball was headed on by out of position Chris Smalling. Mkhitaryan burst onto the scene at lightening pace and proceeded to brush past the oncoming Huth, who had totally misread the flight of the ball. The move was similar to that of Kevin De Bruyne’s opener for Manchester City at Old Trafford as he anticipated the ball much quicker than Daley Blind, who was at centre half that afternoon. Mkhitaryan still had plenty of do, before he drove towards Schmeichel’s goal, made an angle to shoot that blocked Morgan’s challenge before slotting the ball past the Dane to open the scoring. Although the first twenty minutes had been quite even, it was Mourinho’s men who increased the tempo and deserved to take the lead.
United’s second was more down to the poor defending from the home side and demonstrated a lack of confidence at the King Power at present. Antonio Valencia, who has been excellent for United at right back this season, drove unchallenged down the right hand side before unleashing a low cross into the penalty box. An unmarked Ibrahimovic had peeled off and slotted the ball home to double the visitor’s lead. It was a such simple goal that would have been unthinkable to concede last season. To concede a goal straight after another one also shows a lack of character and Ranieri will need to rally his troops for the trip to Swansea City – who were unlucky not to pick up a point against City today.
The Champions are a shadow of their former self, with footballer of the year Riyad Mahrez ineffective throughout. The service to Jamie Vardy was limited and any long balls that looked to get in behind, were met with a forceful challenge from Eric Bailly. The home side made two changes at half time, bringing on Demarai Gray and Andy King – however, any glimmer of a fightback was quickly extinguished by Juan Mata.
The Spaniard, who was arguably lucky to still be on the field following a wild challenge on Vardy in the first half, scored United’s final goal in what again was poor defending from Leicester. Fuchs looked to push up and leave United’s play maker in an offside position, only to discover that his captain Morgan was deeper than the backline. It was a ridiculous decision from the fullback not to track Mata, whilst the experienced Morgan should have stepped up. For all of Leicester’s problems, United were quality on the counter, sublime in the finish and exquisite in the through ball.
It was Mkhitaryan, who Mata called a “quality player” in a post match interview, who stole the show with his vision and ability to pick a pass – something United have been missing in recent seasons. Will Mourinho now use Mkhitaryan through the middle and utilise his blistering pace combined with his dribbling ability and vision? We’ll see over the next few weeks as United look to further advance in the cup competitions.