August 24, 2017
It’s good to be a Manchester United fan right now. Like, really good. Two dominant wins over West Ham and Swansea City have the team in good spirits and the fan base causing their co-workers to mutter words like “insufferable” under their breath. Just like the good old days. However, to call United’s opponents thus far “weak” is an understatement. Led by Craig “no not that” Shakespeare, Leicester City has been reborn and pose United their first true tactical test of the season. If United want to keep the good times rolling inside and outside of Old Trafford this weekend, there are three key battles they will need to win.
1. Who can win in the air
Going into this season, manager Jose Mourinho challenged his United team, stating “in my other clubs what I had was . . . central defenders good in the air scoring goals at set-pieces.” It appears United’s players were listening. Having scored a goal directly from a set piece in each of their league games, Mourinho will hope to expose Leicester City in the air once again. A strategy that has proved successful in the last two seasons, with United scoring over half of their goals against the Foxes on set pieces/crosses. Unsurprisingly, Mourinho’s team building strategy has put a premium on height, giving United an advantage against just about every team in the England.
However, Leicester are no slouch in the air either. Of the five goals Leicester has scored this season, three have come from set pieces. New addition Harry Maguire has proved a menace, contributing a goal and an assist in Leicester’s first two games. Unfortunately, it is not all good news for Leicester fans. The Foxes struggled against Arsenal, giving up two goals off set plays. They’re prone to defensive lapses and struggle to stop the second ball after possession has been recycled.
The Premier League promises no easy games and set pieces may be key once again if they hope to slow down a resurgent Leicester.
2. Who can counter the counter
One of Jose Mourinho’s greatest strengths is his ability to get the opposition to play how he wants them to play. He sets his teams up to minimize risk and take advantage of his opponent’s inevitable mistakes. While those in the Marcelo Bielsa mold employ a high line to suffocate the other team, Mourinho prefers to sit deeper and allow them to enter the trap he has laid.
Which makes Saturdays match so fascinating.
Both United and Leicester City are comfortable out of possession and prefer getting their attacking players in space on the counter attack. Leicester City rode this wave all the way to the title in 2015/16. However, the following season they struggled to break teams down who began to sit back against them and limit their space. While Shakespeare has done a good job of getting Leicester back to their old system, continue to struggle if teams sit off. With United playing at home, the expectation will be for them to play on the front foot. However, they must remain wary of a Leicester squad who can break with pace and boasts a clinical finisher in Jamie Vardy. Getting the defensive line right will be key for a United team who would expect to see most of the ball.
3. Who can control the wings
Perhaps the most fascinating battle between the two teams will take place on the wings. Both teams play fairly narrow, with Manchester United playing slightly wider. Unsurprisingly, both teams play with, essentially, two inverted wingers and both teams rely on their fullbacks for width. With one fullback, generally being tasked with getting forward and the other playing a slightly more reserved role. On the counter attack, both teams like to win the ball back in their own half and quickly distribute the ball out wide. Against West Ham, Nemanja Matic won the ball back and quickly laid it off to Marcus Rashford. Taking advantage of the open space in the middle, he was able to set up Romelu Lukaku for the opening goal. Similarly, Leicester’s opener against Brighton came after Riyad Mahrez received the ball in a wide position and then drove in towards goal. His shot was saved, but Shinji Okazaki was there to poke it home. Given the similarities, the team that can best utilize the space out wide will have an advantage.
Fortunately, recent history favors the Red Devils. In their last five games against the Foxes, they have consistently won this battle. Out of the eleven goals, they have scored, five were assisted by United’s fullbacks, with Antonio Valencia being especially impactful. Recall his overlapping run in the Community Shield and subsequent cross for the winner. Don’t be surprised if the winning team is the one who wins the wings. Or something like that.
Written by Ben Soleim