Manchester United took a convincing 4-1 win over champions Leicester City on Saturday at Old Trafford without captain Wayne Rooney in the starting lineup.
Rooney has come under fire to start the season, as he hasn’t excelled at the No. 10 position playing behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic. For the game against Leicester, Rooney was dropped to the bench by manager Jose Mourinho, and Juan Mata was given the start.
United had their best 45 minutes of the season to open this game, jumping out to a 4-0 lead after goals by Chris Smalling, Mata, Rashford and Paul Pogba.
Smalling, who was handed the captain’s armband on Saturday, opened up the scoring in the 22nd minute with a nice header from close range on a corner. The centre back found a bit of space inside the penalty area and went up unchallenged to head the ball in behind former United youth player Ron-Robert Zieler in the Leicester net.
Mata was the man of the match for United, and the Spaniard made it 2-0 in the 37th minute before setting up Rashford for the third goal three minutes later. Pogba grabbed his first goal since his return to Old Trafford in the 42nd minute on another good corner by Daley Blind.
Mourinho tinkered quite a bit with the lineup, putting Rashford and Jesse Lingard on either side of Mata. Ander Herrera, who had a good showing midweek in the EFL Cup win over Northampton, retained his place in the starting XI, starting next to Pogba in the center of midfield. United played with a lot more pace, creating space for Mata to use his playmaking skills. Ibrahimovic also seemed a lot happier having the speed of Rashford and Lingard, and the Swede almost scored a spectacular volley in the 28th minute.
United killed the game in the first half, and although Leicester played a lot better in the second half, they didn’t get any closer than a consolation goal by Demarai Gray in the 59th minute.
United looked a lot more balanced without Rooney on the pitch and with Herrera joining Pogba in the midfield. The Red Devils looked dangerous every time they went forward, and the win definitely takes a lot of the pressure off the team after losing three straight games to Manchester City, Feyenoord and Watford. They did pick up the win midweek over Northampton in the EFL Cup, but in the big scheme of things, the EFL Cup is the least important competition this season for the club.
Mourinho came out swinging against what he called the “Einsteins” in the media after the win over Northampton, and the manager was pleased with what he saw from his side against the reigning champions.
“I think we started well for the first time I can say,” Mourinho said after the win. “Normally our second-half performances are better than the first. I don’t know why as we prepare in the same way with the same professionalism. Today we had intensity, we had good movement, we were dynamic and we were strong defensively against a team that, I repeat, are easy to analyze but hard to cope with. To be back home and beat the champions is good. Last season we couldn’t beat them and this season we’ve already beaten them twice.”
United will have to keep this level of play if they are to challenge for the title this season, but this is the type of game that could really kickstart their season. Although Mourinho stressed that Rooney is still an important player for the team, it’s clear that he shouldn’t be starting every game at this point in his career.
Rooney has a lot of miles on his body, and he’s not looked good in the No. 10 role, as he and Ibrahimovic seems to drop into the same area of the pitch. Mourinho did have some praise for his Swedish striker, despite Ibra failing to find the back of the net against Leicester.
“I think the team played very well,” Mourinho said. “You score four goals but your striker doesn’t score a goal and yet I think the striker played phenomenal. I think [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic played fantastic in the way he was the start of our attacks. I prefer to say that my team as a team played well.”
It now remains to be seen if Mourinho will stick with this lineup in the near future in the league, and give players like Rooney and Marouane Fellaini a run in the Europa League and the domestic cups.