Manchester United travel to Leicester City on Saturday as the 2017/18 Premier League season hits the halfway point. Though recent defeats to Manchester City and Bristol City have cast a pall over the club, this season’s first half remains a positive one for José Mourinho and his squad. United sit a strong second domestically and look forward to a very winnable Champions League date with Sevilla in the new year.
Both sides come into Saturday’s match after crashing out of the Carabao Cup midweek. A spirited Leicester City gave Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City all they could handle, equalizing in the last minute of second-half stoppage time before eventually losing on penalties.
If the Foxes could take confidence and belief from their performance against City, the same cannot be said for Manchester United’s limp display at Ashton Gate. Mourinho understandably rotated his squad, but the chopping and changing resulted in a team that lacked fluidity and understanding. One of the only positives from Wednesday night was Zlatan Ibrahimović scoring his first goal of the season, having briefly drawn United level with a superb free kick.
In his post-match comments, Mourinho lamented the defeat and revealed his plans to restore the starters at Leicester City: “The reality is that the ones that were on the pitch [at Bristol City] were the ones that were not in the last match and are the ones that aren’t going to be in the next match.” At Ashton Gate, the manager made ten changes (Marcus Rashford the only survivor) and he may again come close to that number on Saturday.
Only Paul Pogba and one of Rashford or Anthony Martial will likely hold onto his place in the side. The biggest change should come to the defensive unit, where David De Gea, Ashley Young, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, and Antonio Valencia (if fit) will return to the starting eleven. That’s good news for United because the backup defense stumbled badly against Bristol City.
Further up field, expect Nemanja Matić, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard, and Romelu Lukaku to come back in too. Lingard could prove an especially useful option for this match, as his positional discipline and tireless work-rate are essential qualities against a side like Leicester.
Leicester City sacked manager Craig Shakespeare in October after a poor start to the season left the club in the bottom three. After a short search, former Southampton boss Claude Puel took over and has guided the Foxes back up the table into eighth place. Since his appointment, Leicester have only lost two league matches — to high-flying Manchester City and the suddenly resurgent Crystal Palace.
The host's recent victories over Tottenham and Burnley show that taking three points home from the King Power Stadium will be no easy feat. This Leicester side plays quite similarly to the famous league-winning one of 2015/16, cutting the opposition apart with lightning-quick counter-attacks.
The re-emergence of Riyad Mahrez has been one of the big stories of this Premier League season and Ashley Young (along with the rest of United’s defense) will have his hands full on Saturday. Mahrez has already tallied five goals and four assists in the league so far, equalling his total attacking contributions from a year ago. When he gets the ball out wide, he prefers to cut inside and fire long-range shots at goal. This in-form Mahrez demands constant defensive attention.
Up front, Jamie Vardy and Demarai Gray combine to form an effective partnership. Since Puel took over, Gray has moved into the starting lineup and rewarded his new manager’s trust with three goals. More importantly, though, Gray keeps opposing defenses from keying solely on Vardy during a counter.
Although Leicester City lost midweek to Manchester City, it was the kind of performance that breeds confidence. “It gives us back a good feeling,” explained left back Christian Fuchs. “Not winning the game, but the way we played. We kept the ball and it gives us our confidence back.”
“We are happy with the performance,” he continued. “The feeling we have is a bit of disappointment, but we can be proud and go with a good feeling into the Manchester United game.”
United defeated the Foxes 2-0 earlier this season, but should expect a much tougher battle on Saturday. Leicester already ranks among the Premier League’s in-form teams and will only be buoyed by their strong showing against Manchester City. But United’s top players are rested and match up well with Leicester’s counter-attacking philosophy. Hopefully Manchester United close out the season’s first half in fine style on Saturday.