Paul Pogba starred in a better-balanced Manchester United midfield three, as José Mourinho’s side ended a two-game losing streak with a first-half demolition of champions Leicester City.
Aside from responding to the injury-enforced absences of Anthony Martial and Luke Shaw, Mourinho opted to make two further unforced changes to the side that capitulated at Watford on Sunday.
Although Michael Carrick served a timely midweek reminder of his eye for the deep-lying instigation of attacking moves, the United manager instead plumped for the similar – but more mobile – Ander Herrera to replace the benched Marouane Fellaini at the base of United’s midfield.
In place of the Belgian’s headless chicken ball-winning, Herrera immediately brought some much-needed positional guile to the hosts’ midfield, winning the ball via interception three times more often than through the means of a tackle.
Already one up from the first of three successful left-wing corner-kicks, United’s best open-play opportunity of the first half – when Marcus Rashford miscontrolled and blazed wide – stemmed from a rapid counter-attack instigated by the Spaniard, who intercepted a pass into the feet of striker Islam Slimani and accurately fed a waiting Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Herrera’s positional restraint also facilitated the improved execution of Paul Pogba’s natural box-to-box game, with the Frenchman availing of the greater freedom afforded to him to roam forward and attempt some audacious lofted through balls.
Pogba also completed the game as its most prolific passer; a testament to the greater midfield control that Herrera’s thoughtful presence engendered.
Higher up the field, Juan Mata was tasked with occupying the free role vacated by the dropped Wayne Rooney, and that change too represented a marked improvement for Mourinho’s side.
It’s difficult to imagine the England captain, on current form, marauding into the empty space in front of Leicester’s defence and continuing his run to apply the finishing touches to United’s wonderful second goal.
Although the majority of this game’s post-mortem will rightly focus on the concession of three goals from corner-kicks by Claudio Ranieri’s man-marking system, Mata’s goal – the only one that the champions conceded from open play – underlined just how much the Foxes are missing midfielder N’Golo Kanté.
Kanté, now at Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, would surely have either pressed Mata during the Spaniard’s initial dribble, or tracked his subsequent run into the area. Daniel Amartey, his temporary replacement in the absence of the injured Nampalys Mendy, did neither.
Acknowledging that the excellent Daniel Drinkwater, who completed a combined total of nine tackles and interceptions, was performing the work of two men in Leicester’s 4-4-2, Ranieri used the Champions League-motivated half-time removals of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez to introduce midfielder Andy King in a 4-1-4-1.
Led by Mahrez’s exciting young replacement Demarai Gray, the Foxes used that extra midfield body to win the second-half and save further embarrassment. Although Gray’s stunning long-range effort was the undoubted highlight, the subsequent King chance minutes later was far more interesting from a tactical perspective.
Having seen his side ship two goals from cut-backs away to Watford last week, Mourinho would surely have fumed at the sight of the Welsh midfielder popping up unguarded in the box to pull the trigger on Jeffrey Schlupp’s byline pull-back.
Schlupp had run onto a threaded pass from Drinkwater, who Herrera left to track the Ghanaian winger’s run. Unfortunately for United, underlining the perils of fielding the positionally-irresponsible Pogba in a double-pivot, the French midfielder neglected to keep tabs on his man King, whose resultant left-footed strike failed to trouble David de Gea.
In that context, Mourinho’s 79th-minute decision to introduce Carrick in an anchorman role and switch to a 4-1-4-1 of his own was telling. Despite his dominant performance this afternoon at Old Trafford, serious question marks remain over whether or not Pogba can be safely accommodated in a midfield three, without a designated holder to play behind him.
If indeed the Portuguese supremo does eventually settle on a 4-1-4-1 system to best exploit the former Juventus man’s talents, where does that leave summer signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Juan Mata, or even the under-fire Wayne Rooney?