Manchester United dropped two points at Leicester as a late own goal from Axel Tuanzebe salvaged a draw for the hosts; goals from Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes gave Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side the lead on two occasions, but it was not enough to get victory at the King Power stadium.
After just seventy seconds United had an incredible opening; Bruno Fernandes clipped a cross into the box and Marcus Rashford should have scored with the gift of a header presented to him. Not only did he fail to score, he failed to hit the target.
Leicester tested United’s new shape and a couple of times felt as though they might get joy through Victor Lindelof’s unfamiliarity at right-back; but before they were able to create anything significant, the visitors had created another opening – another for Rashford, who was much more clinical.
United attacked from the right and Fernandes stabbed a ball through to the number ten. Rashford had time and made no mistake. It was his 50th league goal for the club.
The lead did not last too long – on the half hour, Harvey Barnes was allowed time that should not have been given to him by McTominay, Bailly and James. He was able to get a nice strike away and the conversion was smart. The attack had started from a slip by Maguire that put Fernandes in a difficult position in possession; he gave the ball away to Maddison, and the rest was history.
Before the game this was being billed as an important encounter in terms of the title race but that is a concerning indictment of the strength of this league. Leicester had lost four home games already this season prior to today and United’s current position is in spite of the club not sufficiently strengthening from a strong position in the summer.
Solskjaer’s side are on a gradual upward trajectory but still have a defence and midfield that is arguably the worst United have had in the Premier League. Casting them as title challengers, when the reality is they need improvements to consolidate a place as a reliable Champions League place contender, is disingenuous and creates distorted perspective and expectations. It also serves to overstate Liverpool’s strength; they’re the best team in the division, but this contest was enough to illustrate how weak the division is.
Games at this level should be dictated by who makes critical errors, not by who gets away with fewer. Even United’s attack, on paper the strongest area, needs much improvement; in the quality of decision making (James), the sniffing nose and conviction of a top striker (Rashford) and the proactivity and anticipation that Martial lacks.
United’s start to the second half was lackadaisical and ridiculous. Leicester seemed to target Lindelof on the right through Vardy’s pace. They didn’t need to force errors – the United backline are always only too happy to oblige. Fred hit a high backwards pass from 30 yards, for no reason, and Eric Bailly had his arm out pointing. It struck the arm and a free-kick was conceded. It was embarrassing, but on this occasion United were fortunate to get away with it, and fortunate further that Bailly wasn’t in the box. They’ve conceded penalties like that before.
Solskjaer’s response was to bring Pogba on for the ineffectual James, making the game narrower. The formation change caught the hosts off guard and United almost capitalised when Rashford was put through; Schmeichel was good enough to deny him. A minute later Rashford put Martial through; the French forward put the ball in the net, but was offside.
Cavani – that striker with all of the qualities Martial doesn’t have – was brought on for the number 9, and immediately made an impact, dropping deep to receive a pass and then playing a smart through ball to Fernandes. The playmaker made no mistake to finish across the goalkeeper. United, occasionally, have a habit of making such moments look frustratingly simple.
They also have a habit of being simply frustrating; and, at a time where concentration and responsibility were two qualities desperately needed, too many players were caught ball-watching and pointing. But pointing fingers never stopped goals going in, and Perez was given space to pick his pass. Vardy’s effort deflected off the unfortunate Tuanzebe and into the net for an equaliser five minutes from the end.
Neither side were good enough to take all three points and so they were shared, a fair result from a game which felt like it was between two contenders for the top four positions rather than the title-challenging encounter it had been billed as.
Judged on the premise of what it was, it was a fair summary of where United are – you’re left thinking if they are stronger defensively, more imposing in midfield or more clinical or consistent in attack, then greater rewards are on offer.
So a point at a rival for the Champions League place is a decent result, even if said team have lost those four home games.
It won’t stop the perception of it being a failure as people try to engineer the idea of the title race but the result wasn’t a disappointment because of that – it was a disappointment because the familiar handicaps this team have continue to undermine any feeling they can progress from where they are in reality.
Eric Bailly’s performance at Everton was strong enough to get him the nod to play today; a reputation most definitely enhanced by his absence as the memory of his performance against Spurs still scars this particular writer. To accommodate that inclusion, Victor Lindelof was moved to right-back – and, after the recent dropping and recalling of De Gea, it did leave the impression that it felt like another unnecessary tinker. Solskjaer also resisted the temptation to play Pogba and Cavani from the start.
There were moments of poor positioning from Lindelof but nothing too drastic; the midfield axis of McTominay and Fred were not able to have their usual impression on the game against the busy and energetic Leicester midfield, though that is not to say they were poor – it’s just in such moments and on such days where the lack of quality in this area feels more pronounced.
Solskjaer made decent changes to influence the game – the introduction of Pogba added a more claustrophobic feel in the middle of the park that seemed to work to his team’s advantage for a little while, and Cavani’s class ensured that we’re discussing the dropping of one point instead of three.
There’s no point being catastrophic after what should be seen as a decent result, but that’s why we love football – it’s the pattern of events within the ninety minutes that influence how we feel about the final score.
Might Ole have done better with his changes? Perhaps. But it would really feel hyper-critical to get in to that when all reasonable analysis of this current Manchester United side should conclude that this was a fair reflection both in terms of game and result.
De Gea 6
— United Goals ⚽️ (@UnitedGoals__) December 26, 2020
— United Goals ⚽️ (@UnitedGoals__) December 26, 2020