In week five of the Barclay's Premier League, Manchester United faced a confident underdog in Leicester City. Leicester, predicted by many to struggle in their opening schedule, actually flourished losing only once to highly touted Chelsea, while drawing tough opponents Arsenal and Everton and defeating Stoke.
United deployed the ultra attacking front previewed in the second half of their clean sheet against Queens Park Rangers, starting Robin Van Persie and Radamel Falcao at center forward positions with Wayne Rooney slightly behind them in the center attacking midfielder role. Ander Herrera and Ángel Di María playing wing midfielder positions, and Daley Blind rounded out the diamond midfield at central defending midfielder. Completing the defensive line, Van Gaal started Rafael at right back, Jonny Evans and Tyler Blackett as the two centerbacks, and Marcos Rojo as the left back. The match became a tale of two halves. The flow of the goals determined by errors in Manchester United's passing and controversial judgments by the match officials.
Through the first 10 minutes, the Manchester United attack looked slightly uncomfortable. When in possession, they looked frantic. The game failed to settle until they were able to notch their first goal. Van Persie, receiving the starting nod, played well but did not take advantage of an early chance. After an excellent run, Di María slid a through ball past the defense to the 12yd line, which van Persie was not able to complete. In the 13th minute, Falcao beat right back Richie De Laet on a turn letting the ball pass him. Then, he played a ball curling to the back post, which found Van Persie, who, in turn, found the net with his head. Shortly after, in the 16th minute, Di María made an explosive run from midfield, linking up with captain Wayne Rooney and receiving the return pass on the 18th yard line, chipping Leicester City goalie Casper Schmeichel magnificently. Manchester United now lead Leicester by two goals. The lead was short lived. Just a minute later, Leonardo Ulloa put Leicester on the board, as a Jamie Vardy cross found him, and he beat the Manchester defense to the near post with a well-placed header. Manchester United 2, Leicester City 1.
Throughout his 75 minutes played, Di María continued to be the dynamo that drives the United offense, creating opportunities even when off the ball. In the 30th minute, crisis struck United, as an ankle injury sustained by Jonny Evans demanded an early substitution. Chris Smalling replaced the injured Englishman. Later, in the 34th minute, a non-decision by Mark Clattenberg allowed Leicester defender Richie De Laet, already booked for a yellow, to get away with a malicious push on Di María, which the left midfielder injured on the play. In this portion of the half, Rojo's passing was loose, generating offense for Leicester City on far too many occasions which led to dangerous turnovers, an omen of worse things to come. Still, United dominated possession throughout the first half, holding the ball predominately in midfield and in their attacking third.
In the second half, things took a turn for the worse. Loose passing from the backline continued early in the half, as a Rafael pass almost lead to an undeserved Leicester offensive chance. In the 49th minute, a moment of near brilliance, as Falcao hit a masterful chip that beat Schmeichel, but struck the crossbar. In the 51st minute, Di María earned another free kick on a blazing run that forced yellow-card bearing De Laet to commit another foul. In turn, Manchester United's back line continually looked ready to be exposed, particularly through the middle.
In the 57th minute, Robin Van Persie teed up Angel Di María for a shot, which Ander Herrera redirected with his heel for United's third goal. All was set for smooth sailing; a strong defensive performance would confirm victory for United. Instead, the team seemed set on snatching more goals, which left the defensive form stretched. In the 62nd minute, United's offensive pursuits and poor officiating would haunt the Red Devils. Jamie Vardy, committing a blatant flop, took a dive on Rafael and earned a penalty kick, mere moments after employing his own more severe shoulder barge on United's right-back, committing a clear foul. David Nugent hit his mark from the penalty spot bringing the score to 3-2. Tensions became clearly apparent in United's tempo of play and ball security. Again, two minutes later, another loose pass from the backline, this time Smalling as the culprit, would become the precursor to Leicester's next goal. Cambiasso made the most of his home debut, drawing the match level at 3-3 with a decisive strike off a deflection.
Following their third goal, United's attack no longer had the answers, the possession was contained mostly in their defensive third, and the pace became frenetic with United appearing timid in possession. Following Di María's substitution, United's attack no longer menaced the Leicester City defense, generating few real chances and no more shots on goal. Making matters worse, Marcos Rojo seemed to be out of position several times throughout the goalless spell for United, compromising their formation and requiring that midfielders tackle back and cover for his errors.
In the 79th minute, Rojo decided the game further. After another poorly timed and ill advised pass, Juan Mata was dispossessed by Richie De Laet leading to a clean breakaway for newly anointed Manchester menace, Jamie Vardy, which he calmly finished. Manchester United 3, Leicester City 4. In the 82nd minute, Rojo's dismal passing continued. Following another errant Rojo pass, the resulting pop-up, and a slight nudge on Tyler Blackett by Vardy, there was another breakaway for the Leicester City frontman. This demanded that United's young central defender go to ground in a terrible tackle without any chance of cleanly winning it, which produced a straight red card and sending off. Ulloa beat De Gea on the game's second penalty kick to bring the score to 5-3.
Reflecting on the match, in particular the officiating, I must say that head referee Mark Clattenberg's performance was truly appalling and Jamie Vardy was truly villain not hero. Comparing the consistency of rulings in pushing fouls, in particular Rafael's "foul" on Vardy in the box, Vardy's shoulder barge on Rafael shortly before, and De Laet's earlier unnecessary push on Di María, it becomes evident that there was no rhyme or reason to the calls. The first penalty, decided by the Vardy flop became a pivotal moment in the match, dictating a tremendous swing in momentum. Vardy surely left it all on the field, playing at a tremendous work rate both in defense and attack. However, his dubious role in several decisive plays leaves his overall performance more sinister than special.
United looks to return to winning form next week from tremendous collapse in a home match against West Ham United. West Ham's spirits will be riding high after a 3-1 victory over Liverpool. Look for Luke Shaw to make his debut at Old Trafford, more than likely replacing Rojo, whose passing struggled and precipitated two of the four Leicester City comeback goals. Rojo will probably find himself in the lineup at centerback replacing the injured Jonny Evans and suspended Tyler Blackett. Manchester United will play West Ham United at 10:00 AM EST on Saturday, 9/27.