The FourFourTwo Preview: Man United vs Leicester
4th vs bottom, the business end of the season rapidly approaching the horizon.
MAN UNITED FORM
- Cambridge 0-0 Man Utd (FAC)
- QPR 0-2 Man Utd (Prem)
- Man Utd 0-1 So’ton (Prem)
- Yeovil 0-2 Man Utd (FAC)
- Stoke 1-1 Man Utd (Prem)
- Spurs 1-2 Leicester (FAC)
- Leicester 0-1 Stoke (Prem)
- Leicester 1-0 Villa (Prem)
- Leicester 1-0 Newcastle (FAC)
- Liverpool 2-2 Leicester (Prem)
Jamie Vardy's face said it all. Calamity after clanger in the Manchester United defence had put him through on goal, and on a day like this - the game of his life, one in which the former Stockbridge Park Steels player won two penalties and set up a goal - he was not going to miss.
Leicester had come from 3-1 down to lead the expensively-assembled Red Devils, their newfound galactico status epitomised by this being Radamel Falcao's first start, 4-3. Leonardo Ulloa's penalty would seal a 5-3 win, the Foxes' first over United since 1998, and as he darted off to give Filbert the Fox a hearty Argentinian embrace, you knew this was a famous day for all connected with the newly-promoted club.
Any illusion that £145 million worth of splurging would turn United into instant title contenders was shattered that September day.
The defeat was Louis van Gaal's second in five league games, and while an opening-day Swansea surprise was just about reasonably discounted as a minor blip - not least because Ander Herrera was the only summer signing to feature - losing a two-goal lead for the first time in 853 Premier League matches, on top of a 4-0 League Cup spanking at MK Dons, offered startling evidence that Old Trafford expectations needed tempering.
Since that defeat, Van Gaal's side have only actually lost two further league games - and one of those was at Manchester City after playing more than half of it with 10 men.
Still, murmurs of discontent are slowly rumbling among the United faithful after just two wins in seven games and a failure to score against League Two Cambridge United.
A serious of strange tactical decisions, an inability to put the ball in the net, a confusing adherence to a 'philosophy' that doesn't seem to be working and some desperately mundane football have all contributed to the feeling that maybe Van Gaal isn't quite the genius everybody thought upon his arrival in Manchester.
Still, there's no reason for doom and gloom quite yet, and among the positives is United's growing defensive solidity, with just eight goals conceded in their last 13 league games.
For the Foxes, that life-affirming triumph was the zenith of what's rapidly descended into an increasingly desperate season. After beating United, Leicester would not win another league game until after Christmas, a scrappy affair at Hull settled by a single Riyad Mahrez goal. They've only won two league games since, in fact.
FA Cup victory over Spurs provided some much-needed respite, but Nigel Pearson's men need to start winning games. Of their next four matches, three of them are away at United, Arsenal and Everton. With the gap starting to widen between them and 17th, the next month or so could well define Leicester's season.
United's injury crisis has somewhat subsided in recent weeks, with Ashley Young the only certain absentee this weekend. Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling have minor injury problems but are expected to be fit enough to feature. Leicester are without the injured Kasper Schmeichel, the suspended Matty James (a United academy graduate) and the Equatorial Guinea-exiled Mahrez. Chris Wood and Liam Moore are nursing knocks.
Player to watch: Angel Di Maria (Man United)
What's the matter with Angel? Since bagging an assist in United's 2-1 win at Arsenal back in November (a game in which the spritely Argentine also spectacularly blundered a one-on-one to kill Arsenal off) Di Maria's only decisive contribution has been a goal at Yeovil Town in the FA Cup. Nicely taken, sure, but £59.7m was not wired to the Bernabeu for the purpose of late breakaway goals at Huish Park.
Di Maria has had injury problems in the interim, but the simple fact is he hasn't looked anything like the player who was so fundamental to Real Madrid's Champions League-winning campaign last season. Part of this is down to Van Gaal, whose recent deployment of Di Maria in attack alongside Falcao, with Wayne Rooney in central midfield, has been quite bizarre - akin to a magician trying a new trick that clearly isn't working, but awkwardly persisting with it regardless in the hope of eventually convincing the audience of his wizardry.
In United's last league game, a 2-0 win at QPR, Di Maria was virtually anonymous up front in Van Gaal's 3-5-2 setup, failing to create a single chance before improving in the second half after the system was amended at half-time. Di Maria performs best when afforded space to run at defenders, whether out wide or through central midfield channels. With Arsenal and Spurs breathing down United's necks for that fourth spot, Van Gaal must find a way to remove the straitjacket restricting one of his most inspirational talents.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Leicester 5-3 United (PL, Sep 14)
- United 1-0 Leicester (PL, Apr 04)
- Leicester 1-4 United (PL, Sep 03)
- United 2-0 Leicester (LC, Nov 02)
- Leicester 0-1 United (PL, Apr 02)
Van Gaal was painted by many as some kind of bone-chewing angry monster when he arrived in Manchester last summer, but while Pearson got himself into hot water for telling a fan to "F*** off and die" in December, the Dutchman was merrily handing out Christmas presents to supporters at Old Trafford like some kind of benevolent, suit-wearing Santa Claus. Perceptions and all that.
Facts and figures
- Wes Morgan has blocked more shots than any other Premier League player this season (28).
- Only Chelsea (19%) have scored with a higher percentage of their shots than Man United (17%).
- For the first time in their 853-game Premier League history, Man United threw away a two-goal lead to lose when the Foxes beat them 5-3 in September.
If Leicester can somehow grab the opener they're in with a fair chance of doing the double. Much depends on what tactics Van Gaal deploys, but United should remain sturdy enough defensively to win. 2-0.