Manchester United thump Leicester after Chris Smalling sparks goal rush

Four goals in 20 first-half minutes, the first from Chris Smalling, set up a 4-1 win against Leicester City, with Wayne Rooney out of the starting lineup for Manchester United

It would be harsh, perhaps, to pin this result solely on the fact José Mourinho had decided to remove Wayne Rooney from his starting lineup. If this was the old Manchester United at work, it also looked suspiciously like the old Leicester. Put the two together and it was not just Rooney’s absence that contributed to the reigning champions of England taking such a walloping against a team that would desperately love to go by that title again.

All the same, Mourinho’s team selection was fully justified given the margin of victory and that 20-minute blitz in the first half when his side scored all their goals and looked equipped to add even more. It was an exhilarating burst of attacking football and in those moments it was tempting to wonder what must have been going through Rooney’s mind in the dugout. Sir Alex Ferguson has dropped him in the past. Louis van Gaal did the same at Stoke on Boxing Day but never has there been such a sense that United genuinely look better off without the man who has led their attack for the past 12 years.

His absence coincided with United’s most satisfying result to date in the Mourinho era and it must have pained a player with Rooney’s competitive instincts to be restricted to the role of an 83rd-minute substitute, brought on only because Marcus Rashford had taken a bang. Mourinho preferred Juan Mata in his starting lineup and the Spaniard, operating in the No10 role, scored United’s best goal as well as being instrumental in the part of the match when Leicester were overwhelmed. Paul Pogba put in his best performance since joining the club, including scoring his first United goal, and Rashford continued his fine scoring form. The system did not change but the personnel did and United did not look back after Chris Smalling’s header instigated the kind of Leicester collapse that would have been unimaginable for most of last season.

Leicester did save some face with their second-half performance, featuring a splendid goal from the substitute Demarai Gray, but they barely looked recognisable from the side that were taking on all-comers not so long ago and it was a jarring reflection of their deterioration that Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, the two players who shared last season’s individual awards, were substituted at half-time.

Paul Pogba peels away to celebrate after scoring Manchester United’s fourth goal of the game and his first for the club.
Paul Pogba peels away to celebrate after scoring Manchester United’s fourth goal of the game and his first for the club. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

Ranieri talked afterwards of his players losing “our confidence, our strength, our attention, our concentration” and his team have now lost as many league games as they did all last season. This was their second successive away defeat of this score, having gone a year without a comparable loss, and he must be alarmed, to say the least, by their sudden disorganisation. A side that built its success on teamwork, structure and a rare spirit of togetherness might have to reinvent themselves unless their title defence is to descend into a long old slog.

It was certainly unusual, to say the least, to see any side at this level concede three goals from corners. Daley Blind, deputising for the injured Luke Shaw at left-back, took all of them in Rooney’s absence and the tone was set, midway through the first half, when Robert Huth, normally such an imposing presence in his own penalty area, lost the first one in mid-air and Smalling powered a downward header into the net.

Pogba’s goal was another unchallenged header from the same route and, by half-time, Leicester’s defenders looked in need of smelling salts. Kasper Schmeichel was badly missed but his deputy, Ron-Robert Zieler, could not be held accountable for the kind of generous defending that left the team so vulnerable.

United’s third goal was a case in point. This time, Blind decided against putting in a cross. Instead, he picked out the quick-thinking Mata with a low pass towards the near post. Mata whipped the ball across the six-yard area and Rashford, showing his own speed of thought, dived in to apply the finishing touch without a single Leicester player reacting.

The paradox is that it had actually been a plodding start from the home side, looking decidedly uneasy after the two previous league defeats that had led to prolonged criticism of the side and provoked a cranky performance from Mourinho in his post-match interviews. Smalling’s goal had therapeutic qualities and even before Mata made it 2-0 there were other moments to lift a hitherto quiet crowd. First Zlatan Ibrahimovic sent Rashford clear, only for the teenager to slash at his shot. Soon afterwards, Ibrahimovic cushioned Pogba’s flick on his chest, spun and volleyed over. Pogba then had a go from 30 yards and Zieler scrambled the ball around for a corner.

Mata certainly justified his place and his goal originated from the game’s outstanding move. Pogba was involved again and it was a lovely touch from Jesse Lingard to create the shooting opportunity. The most impressive part, however, was that Mata had started the exchange, playing the ball into Pogba and darting into the penalty area. Two passes later, the ball was back at his feet and he aimed his left-foot shot inside Zieler’s right-hand post.

Perhaps it was just inevitable United would lower their effort after the break, whereas Gray seemed determined to inspire an improved second-half performance from the visitors. His goal was a beauty, coming in from the left before aiming a diagonal, long-range shot high into David de Gea’s net. There was never any realistic chance, however, of a comeback in the remaining half an hour and, for Rooney, there is the lingering thought that he might have to grow accustomed to his new role.

Contributor

Daniel Taylor at Old Trafford

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