For 70 minutes, there was no way through. Or at least no direct route.
Leicester City, Manchester United’s third opponent of the young Premier League season, had done what two previous United foes had failed to do: It had made it to halftime. In fact, it had held out for over an hour, and while there was United pressure, there weren’t many hints of a breakthrough.
But for United, as was the case against West Ham, and as was the case against Swansea, all it took was one. On 67 minutes, Marcus Rashford stepped onto the Old Trafford pitch. On 70 minutes, in went that one goal, courtesy of Rashford. And United strolled to three points.
In the end, it was 2-0, not 4-0, and for three quarters of the game, United did anything but stroll. Instead, it struggled. Leicester funneled United’s attack wide and confined it to crosses and long-range Paul Pogba efforts. Pogba unleashed seven first-half shots. Six were taken from outside the box. All were off target.
United appeared to have broken through shortly after halftime when a cross struck the arm of Leicester’s Danny Simpson in the penalty area. But Kasper Schmeichel dove to his right to parry away Romelu Lukaku’s penalty.
For the second consecutive week, the breakthrough eventually came via a set piece. As players streamed toward the near post and attacked the ball around him, Rashford simply stood still. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s corner curled right to his feet at the penalty spot.
Schmeichel likely won’t be happy with his inability to keep out the bounding volley, but after his penalty save, he can bear no blame. The Danish keeper also made several stretching saves in the first half to keep United off the board.
When the goal went in, Leicester’s 70 minutes of resistance felt futile. There was no getting back in the game – not against a defense that still hasn’t conceded a goal in 270 Premier League minutes.
United maintained its solidity, while Leicester opened up, and the Red Devils played as if a weight had been lifted off their backs. As Mourinho said after last week’s counterattacking display, the horses ran freely. Not as freely as they did last week, and not with the same results at the end of their sprints, but the pattern of the game was similar.
United could have scored more than two. It also could have scored fewer. Its attack wasn’t as free-flowing and irresistible as it had been in two 4-0 victories.
But if you don’t concede, all you need is one. Mourinho knows that better than anyone. And through three games, his defense, led by the center back partnership of Phil Jones and Eric Bailly, has been outstanding. It conceded just 0.6 expected goals to West Ham, 0.3 to Swansea, and 0.9 on Saturday against Leicester. A significant chunk of that 0.9 was a 93rd-minute Islam Slimani chance that presented itself only after United was home and dry.
xG map for Manchester United – Leicester City. And this is United's worst match this season by xG. pic.twitter.com/EaLAS7PXIy
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) August 26, 2017
It was said after week one, and again after week two, but it bears repeating because it continues to be true, and because it wasn’t often true last year: United looks very much like a Mourinho team. Tougher tests will come, surely. But early signs have been almost exclusively positive.