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The beauty of the Premier League’s opening weekend is the blank slate. It is the irrelevance of everything that has come before, and the hope – hope that everything on the horizon will be brighter, merrier, more euphoric. And no other club needed the 2018-19 season’s arrival more than Manchester United.
After an offseason of whining and worrying inactivity, of consternation and internal conflict, United needed the one thing that could make supporters forget. It needed soccer. It needed material success. On Friday, Old Trafford hosted both.
United discarded Leicester City 2-1 to leap to the top of the most premature of Premier League tables. Paul Pogba, less than four weeks after winning the World Cup, captained the side and scored early from the penalty spot. Luke Shaw sealed victory late on with his first professional goal. Jamie Vardy’s stoppage-time consolation was insufficient.
And for at least one night, all the frustration evaporated. Mourinho, rather than scowling, was fist-pumping. United fans, expecting to howl with displeasure, were joyous.
Far too often throughout the 90 minutes, their groans returned. For the final two minutes, teeth clamped down on nails. But they got their reprieve from the offseason soap opera. They got their three points.
United went ahead, then parked the bus
The first half was peak Mourinho: On top after three minutes, on the back foot for the next 42.
United’s early goal was one part individual talent, two parts luck. Pogba sprung Shaw down the left with a clever pass that only he and a few other midfielders in the world could see and execute. Before Shaw even got the ball, Alexis Sanchez was calling for it. Sanchez received it in space, and his toe-poked shot was blocked up onto the arm of Daniel Amartey. It was unquestionably a penalty – though referee Andre Marriner did well to spot it.
Pogba, after an interaction with Sanchez that was somewhere between discussion and dispute, stepped up to the spot and converted.
Then United receded into the Mourinho bunker. The favored hosts were content to play without the ball. They weren’t exactly under siege, but for a good half-hour, Marcus Rashford was isolated up top. Nearly every attempt to break out of the rigid defensive shape was snuffed out by Leicester.
The Foxes, who started with right back Ricardo Pereira on the right wing to combat United’s left, attacked almost exclusively down their own left. The Demarai Gray-James Maddison-Ben Chilwell triangle targeted Matteo Darmian, and probed threateningly.
The best chance, however, came down the right. Wilfred Ndidi picked out Pereira, who squared for Maddison. The 21-year-old summer arrival from Norwich had eyes for the far corner, but David De Gea had a strong right hand for his shot:
Leicester wasn’t dominant, even though it dominated the ball. But it was certainly the better team throughout the first half.
United came out of its shell more often and more effectively after the break. Romelu Lukaku, on as a substitute, should have put the game away in the 78th minute. He was denied by a sprawling Kasper Schmeichel. Shaw did bury the visitors in the 83rd.
Vardy’s goal, though, meant the final score was a better reflection of the 90 minutes.
Given the one-goal margin, the Red Devils were relatively comfortable winners in the end. Leicester only had one or two clear-cut chances before Vardy’s tally.
But they didn’t do much to suggest they can improve on last season’s fortunate second-place finish. They didn’t do much to quell concern that the summer had stirred up.
United did nothing to suggest it can win the title
The Premier League’s opening night was undoubtedly a positive one for United. Any curtain-raising win would be. This one especially was a breath of fresh air, considering the pessimism surrounding the club and the rash of injuries. Mourinho’s starting 11 featured at least four or five players who won’t be part of his first-choice 11.
But the performance wasn’t impressive by any stretch of the imagination. It’s the type of match that easily could have been tipped in Leicester’s favor by a contrasting stroke of luck. United, at times, almost seemed to be inviting the Foxes to equalize.
It was the type of match – at home against a non-Big-Six foe – that United will have to win almost without fail if it’s to contend for the title. And replicas of Friday often won’t be good enough.
Pogba, Shaw, Bailly shine
Pogba was the best player on the pitch by some distance. And that’s remarkable, given he only just returned to training on Monday after his delayed offseason break. Four days later, he was bossing a Premier League midfield. He wasn’t dictating the game. But he was winning it like he did for France this summer, with standout moments of individual brilliance.
Shaw’s success was also notable, given his largely underwhelming first four years at United. He had a hand in the first goal, and in United’s only other memorable first-half attack. And of course, he finally got on a scoresheet for the first time, seven years after making his debut at Southampton.
“In my career so far, it’s probably the best feeling I’ve had,” Shaw said after the match.
Much has been made of his ramped-up preseason fitness program and new diet. And there could be something to the guarded excitement. There’s an outside chance he turns out to be the left back replacement that United decided not to buy.
In the center of defense, Eric Bailly was as active and domineering as ever. He was reckless, too. But that’s the Bailly give-and-take. When he’s healthy, he’s United’s best defender. He often wasn’t last year. His availability will be crucial.
At the other end of the spectrum, Darmian looked in over his head. Fred, on his debut, was energetic but sloppy – more bad than good. Same goes for Alexis Sanchez. And neither Juan Mata nor Andreas Pereira should see the field too often once United gets back to full strength.
Leicester should be encouraged
There was a lot to like about Leicester’s display under tough circumstances – away from home, and a goal down via a fluky penalty shortly after kickoff.
Maddison, the most exciting of seven new signings, was tidy and inventive, even if his physical ability at times held him back. Ricardo Pereira, as expected, looks like he’ll be a massive upgrade on the right. The midfield, as a united, was balanced.
Kelechi Iheanacho was slightly off the pace up top, and perhaps restricted the attack. But Vardy’s return to full match-fitness following his post-World Cup layoff should solve that issue, if it even is one. Leicester still created plenty. The result was a bit of a letdown. But that simply speaks to how well the Foxes played. Their performance probably deserved at least a point.
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