Manchester United put Leicester’s title party on hold after an entertaining 1-1 draw on Sunday. At times, the Red Devils played with the kind of intensity and speed that Old Trafford was once accustomed to, but slack defending at set pieces let the Foxes emerge with a point that puts them on the brink of the Premier League title.
Particularly in the opening stages, United put Leicester on the back foot and opened the scoring through Anthony Martial. They stretched the play and pushed their full-backs forward, with two of the finest chances in the opening period coming after crosses from Antonio Valencia and Marcos Rojo. Another threat was Marouane Fellaini, who kept taking up clever positions in the area whenever a wide delivery was about to materialise.
For their part, Leicester missed Jamie Vardy, and though Riyad Mahrez remained a source of creativity, most of their efforts came via set pieces. That included the equaliser from Wes Morgan as well as a series of situations in which they got to the ball first without being able to trouble David De Gea. Yet neither United offered much in the second half, and a draw seemed a reasonable result in the end.
Full-backs worry Leicester
United wasted little time in attacking Leicester. Louis van Gaal might have noticed that Claudio Ranieri’s narrow 4-4-2 shape can be vulnerable against efficient wide play, for United went down the flanks instead of trying to play between the lines. This strategy resulted in the first league goal Leicester have conceded in the opening 10 minutes this season.
The situation arose from a throw in the United half. For whatever reason, Jeffrey Schlupp moved infield to mark Fellaini, which left him out of position to track Valencia when United switched play. As the Ecuadorian overlapped down the right, Danny Simpson tracked Marcus Rashford inside the box when Robert Huth and Morgan appeared to have full control. That left Martial unmarked at the far post, and the Frenchman duly converted Valencia’s cross.
While that piece of defending was uncharacteristically poor, Leicester continued to struggle out wide. On 14 minutes, Rojo clipped in a cross that Fellaini chested down to set up Jesse Lingard, who drew a one-hand reflex save from Kasper Schmeichel. In the build-up, Mahrez had been positioned too far infield to track Rojo and this development worried Ranieri to such an extent that he shuffled his pack minutes later, putting Schlupp on the right wing, Mahrez up front, and tireless striker Shinji Okazaki on the left wing.
That helped, but Ranieri soon returned to his original system once Morgan had struck. United were less effective after the interval and when Van Gaal later described the display as “one of the best matches of the season,” he will probably have been referring to that opening period.
Foxes strike from set pieces
Leicester had less to offer in open play. The absence of Vardy was more noticeable on the road than it had been in the 4-0 win at home to Swansea, and it did not help that United had the best defensive record at home in the league, with seven shipped in 17 fixtures. Yet defending set pieces is a different trick to staying organised in open play, as Ranieri’s side would prove more than once.
That the visitors were given so many needless free-kicks was surprising, but then again United have committed the most fouls in the league, with 12.5 on average per game. On 17 minutes, Danny Drinkwater’s delivery was headed in by Morgan, who had beaten Rojo, and when Morgan beat the Argentine to another set piece just before the break it was surprising to see Van Gaal stick with his man-marking system. Two minutes into the second half, another Christian Fuchs corner found Morgan, who directed a header at De Gea after getting ahead of Rojo again.
Other players also threatened. Minutes later, Leonardo Ulloa hit a free-kick delivery off target and, in total, eight of Leicester’s 14 attempts came directly from set pieces, with four out of five corners having led to an effort. Van Gaal may have rued the goal they conceded, but it could have been worse.
Fellaini lurks in the box
Leicester were not the only side threatening in the air, though. Before a minute had been played, Daley Blind lofted a ball towards Fellaini and, while the Belgian would appear down the right wing at times, Van Gaal had clearly instructed him to move into the box whenever possible. When Lingard tested Schmeichel on 14 minutes, the move that started the attack was a long ball that Fellaini flicked to him while outmuscling Fuchs.
Fuchs remained a target for Fellaini. Whenever the ball was on the left, the midfielder kept positioning himself close to the Austrian left-back by the far post and seemed certain to beat his marker in the air. As it happened, the delivery to him was not good enough and Fellaini only arrived first to a couple of set pieces without ever really worrying Schmeichel. Incidentally, after he had been taken off for Ander Herrera on 75 minutes, defender Chris Smalling appeared in the exact same far post position to steer Wayne Rooney’s pass on to the outside of the woodwork. That was as close as United came that half.
Mahrez leads attacks
Apart from set pieces, Leicester’s best bet was Mahrez on the counter. The quicksilver Algerian proved elusive all afternoon and created a couple of decent chances with early crosses from the right. One was steered off target by Okazaki; another was missed by Ulloa. In the second half, he played in Simpson whose cross was nearly turned in by Okazaki, before his pass to Ulloa on the break saw the Argentine fluff his finish.
Ranieri may have wondered what Vardy could have done in those counter-attacking situations but, given the striker’s suspension, the Italian was understandably pleased with a point.