Manchester United went three points clear of their title rivals — what? it counts! — with a 2-1 win over Leicester, thanks to a performance that was a good deal more entertaining than much of last season. Even if it was a little squeaky at times.
If there was one thing Old Trafford needed, after a fractious preseason and an underwhelming transfer window, it was United to come out and attack. If there was a second thing, it was an early goal. Check, and check.
Matteo Darmian and Luke Shaw began the game by barrelling into the Leicester half, and United’s early enterprise was rewarded when Daniel Amartey stuck out an arm in the penalty box, only for the ball to crash into it. Paul Pogba tip-toed up to the penalty, paused to let the bile of every middle-aged Proper Football Man in Britain rose to a bubbling, boiling crescendo, and then slapped it into the net.
Beyond the goal, it was a promising start in plenty of other respects. Fred and Andreas Pereira looked bright in midfield, and Eric Bailly, apparently unfazed by the lack of signings, was throwing big tackles around at the back. Meanwhile Pogba was everywhere: pinging passes, winning headers, shouting at the referee, occasionally getting his feet tangled up. It was pretty close to fun ...
... until Leicester decided that they were going to try and keep the ball, which they did with worrying ease. United’s right side — Matteo Darmian behind Juan Mata — looked predictably vulnerable, and Leicester began to force United back as the half hour rolled around.. David de Gea had to be sharp to deny James Maddison, and Victor Lindelof put his shoulder on the line to deny Kelechi Iheanacho as he ran through the centre of United’s defence.
The second half didn’t get going quite as quickly as the first, but United did at least look like somebody had told them that they were allowed to pass the ball around as well. Fred decided to get into the swing of English football by kicking and getting kicked by Maddison, and collected a yellow for his trouble. Meanwhile Marcus Rashford was buzzing around with menacing intent, but couldn’t quite work a clear opening.
The game began to drift past in a cloud of half-chances: here a United break that didn’t quite stitch together, there an Iheanacho charge cut off by Bailly. Leicester brought Jamie Vardy on, and Jose Mourinho responded by introducing Romelu Lukaku. Shortly afterwards, Vardy created Leicester’s best chance of the half when he pushed over Shaw near the touchline. De Gea saved smartly from Demarai Gray.
With ten minutes left on the clock and the game just starting to open up a little, United wasted a gift-wrapped, bow-topped chance. Lukaku drifted away from his man inside the box and had time to take a touch, look up, and place his shot. Annoyingly, Kasper Schmeichel decided this was an appropriate moment to channel his father: he was out quick and big, and diverted the ball over the bar.
But no matter, because it turns out that Luke Shaw is a goalscoring genius. As Mata and Pogba faffed around on the right flank, Shaw spotted a space on the left side of the box, stuck his arm up, and ambled forward. Mata put the ball across, and Shaw shinned the ball one side of his defender, ducked around the other, then swiped the ball home for his first senior goal. Have that, Dennis Bergkamp.
There was just enough time for Leicester to pinch one back, as Bailly and De Gea both left a cross that bounced back off the post and into Vardy’s face. But United survived the subsequent minute or two of panic, and held on to take the three points. Even more importantly, they held on to avoid the comedy collapse, the massive argument, and the sight of Jose Mourinho taking all his clothes off and smearing himself with blood. Maybe it won’t all end in tears after all.