Harry Maguire‘s stoppage-time goal saw ten-man Leicester City draw 2-2 at home to Manchester United in the Premier League‘s first Saturday night primetime fixture, leaving José Mourinho’s side 13 points behind leaders Manchester City.
United have dominated the early proceedings but found themselves behind after 25 minutes when a long ball forward found Riyad Mahrez. He released the onrushing Jamie Vardy and the Foxes’ No.9 did the rest, slotting home his 50th Premier League goal to become Leicester’s all-time top scorer in the competition.
Vardy clearly thrives playing United having scored his first Premier League goal against the Red Devils in a memorable 5-3 win, as well as breaking Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record for goals in consecutive games by netting against the Reds.
But Mata had other ideas and levelled 13 minutes later, steering Jesse Lingard’s perfectly cushioned pass into the bottom corner. On the hour mark Mata doubled up, whipping a stunning free-kick over the wall and into the next to give Mourinho‘s side the lead for the first time.
But Leicester dug deep and when Chris Smalling – having just received treatment on the touchline – was unable to get close to Maguire, the centre-back met Marc Albrighton‘s in-swinging delivery and stabbed home an equaliser in the last of four minutes of stoppage time.
Captaincy underlines Pogba influence
The press in this country tend to ascribe far too much importance to the role of the captain – especially the England captaincy – given their in-game role is limited to bartering with the referee and leading the handshakes. Football captains aren’t, after all, asked to make the same tactical or strategic decisions cricketers are, for example.
Still, there is an obsession with who wears that strip of cloth around their bicep so it might have been a surprise to see Pogba lead United out the tunnel at the King Power. The dabbing Frenchman isn’t cast from the same mould as, say, Tony Adams or John Terry; the ‘put your head in first and ask questions later’ school of leadership. Not what that haircut, anyway.
But his importance to United makes him a natural choice. The former Juventus man is a big influence in the dressing room – a quick glance at his social media accounts tell you that – and a larger than life character.
Furthermore, he is their most important player on the field too. Those are qualities which make the one-time most expensive player of all time the kind of charismatic leader to drive United forward.
José’s right-back conundrum
With skipper Antonio Valencia missing out, Mourinho elected to start with the rather gangly figure of Victor Lindelöf at right-back in place of the injured Matteo Darmian. The Italian’s case doubtless would have been not helped by his part in the Carabao Cup defeat to Championship side Bristol City in midweek, though Mourinho confirmed he was injured.
“Darmian is also injured,” Mourinho said ahead of the game. “We don’t have too many more options [at right-back] and Victor has experience to play in the position even at highest level, in the last Euros he was there for Sweden, so it’s not a new position for him.”
The right-back spot has long been an issue for United who have gone through several options since Gary Neville’s retirement. Rafael shone in Neville’s old spot for a while before being drummed out by Louis van Gaal who then – by luck rather than judgement – pushed Valencia in the role.
A winger when he joined United, the Ecuadorian has become the Red Devils’ Mr Consistent and a leader too. But there is no natural deputy with Darmian clearly out of favour – possibly even more so than Luke Shaw.
Linedelöf has endured a tough start to his career in England, making just five Premier League starts since his £31million move from Benfica. At a quick glance he would appear too tall and awkward to play at full-back. But apart from one indiscretion (see below) he did well defensively and allowed United to seamlessly switch to a back three with Ashley Young joining the attack.
Foxes’ counter still a surprise
Much of the success of Leicester’s shock 2016 title win was down to their style of play, built around the pace of Vardy and Mahrez. The Foxes caught teams out time and time again by breaking at speed and releasing Vardy to go one-on-one with defenders and, more often than not, score.
How, then, is it still a surprise to teams that the Foxes are good on the counter? United had peppered Kasper Schmeichel‘s goal in the opening 25 minutes but fell behind in careless circumstances when a rather hopeful long ball forward from Wilfred Ndidi found Mahrez on the edge of United’s box. He laid off for Vardy who, with no-one close to him, did the rest.
On the touchline, Mourinho fumed. And rightly so. He had just seen one of his centre-backs, Phil Jones, get unnecessarily sucked in, leaving the space in behind for Mahrez. Worse still, the England international – and Lindelöf – jogged back to help out Smalling who was left outnumbered at the back.
Mahrez fails to protect Simpson
Manchester United constantly got at Leicester down the left with one-time Arsenal transfer target Mahrez failing to protect former Red Devils youngster Simpson.
The Algerian winger is rightly lauded for his trickery and ability to create something from very little. But his failure to tuck in and help his right-back out left Simpson exposed and allowed United to get in down the left.
Eventually Simpson could take no more and was withdrawn with a hamstring complaint. Little wonder, given he had the dual threat of Young and Anthony Martial running at him throughout. You can see in the heatmaps below, courtesy of WhoScored.com, the relative influence of the two versus Mata and Lindelöf on the opposite flank.
Claude Puel has quickly enjoyed a profound impact at the King Power Stadium, not least by bringing Demarai Gray into the side as a No.10. But his arrival has pushed Mahrez wide and that has an impact on the balance of the team.
Leicester have own right-back woes
Simpson, with twisted blood and a tight hamstring, is the Foxes’ only senior right-back. Holding midfielder Amartey has filled in at No.2 in the first half of the season and was introduced when the former United defender was forced off in the 57th minute.
But, 17 minutes later, he followed Simpson down the tunnel having earned two bookings in just four minutes – the second for a particularly daft trip on substitute Marcus Rashford.
With three fixtures in the next eight days, Puel will rightly be fuming. His stand-in right-back has not only denied himself the opportunity to prove he can be Simpson’s deputy, but left his manager with a headache.