New Rooney role may stick as United sparkle in his absence
Manchester United 4 Leicester City 1
It would be harsh to pin this result solely on the fact Jose Mourinho had decided to remove Wayne Rooney from his starting line-up. If this was the old Manchester United at work, it also looked suspiciously like the old Leicester. Put the two together and it was not just Rooney's absence that contributed to the reigning champions of England taking such a walloping against a team that would love to go by that title again.
Al the same, Mourinho's team selection was fully justified given the margin of victory and the 20-minute blitz in the first half when his side scored all their goals and looked equipped to add even more. It was an exhilarating burst of attacking football and in those moments it was tempting to wonder what must have been going through Rooney's mind in the dugout. Alex Ferguson has dropped him in the past. Louis van Gaal did the same at Stoke on St Stephen's Day but never has there been such a sense that United look better off without him.
Mourinho said that his decision to drop Rooney was done to give Manchester United pace and width on the wings through Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard and tried to play down the significance of leaving out his captain. "We thought today against Leicester the way they defend and the profile of their defenders, we thought the best solution was to play with the two fast kids and [Juan] Mata in a position where he can interact with the young kids. It went well for us," Mourinho said.
Pushed on Rooney's form and why he in particular had been left out, Mourinho reacted with irritation. "My reasons are, if I don't play Rashford you ask me why. If I don't play Lingard you ask me why. You prefer always to ask why somebody is not playing. Sometimes when I read you I feel I know nothing about football but there is one thing I know, the rules of the game. And I can only start with 11."
Once again, Mourinho blamed the hangover from the previous era for his team's slow start to the season. "What is more difficult is that me and Mr Van Gaal see football in a different way so it is normal in their football brains there are moments of contradiction between what they used to do and what I want them to do."
Rooney's absence coincided with United's most satisfying result to date in the Mourinho era and it must have pained a player with Rooney's competitive instincts to be restricted to the role of an 83rd-minute substitute, brought on only because Rashford had taken a bang. Mourinho preferred Mata in his starting line-up and the Spaniard, operating in the No 10 role, scored United's best goal as well as being instrumental in the part of the match when Leicester were overwhelmed. Paul Pogba put in his best performance since joining the club, including scoring his first United goal, and Rashford continued his fine scoring form. The system did not change but the personnel did and United did not look back after Chris Smalling's header instigated the kind of Leicester collapse that would have been unimaginable for most of last season.
Leicester did save some face with their second-half performance, featuring a splendid goal from substitute Demarai Gray, but they barely looked recognisable from the side that were taking on all-comers not so long ago and it was a jarring reflection of their deterioration that Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez were substituted at half-time.
Ranieri talked afterwards of his players losing "our confidence, our strength, our attention, our concentration" and his team have now lost as many league games as they did last season. His side now might have to reinvent themselves unless their title defence is to descend into a long, old slog. It was certainly unusual to see any side at this level concede three goals from corners. Daley Blind, deputising for the injured Luke Shaw at left-back, took all of them in Rooney's absence and the tone was set, midway through the first half, when Robert Huth lost the first one in mid-air and Smalling powered a downward header into the net.
Pogba's goal was another unchallenged header from the same route and, by half-time, Leicester's defenders looked in need of smelling salts. United's third was a case in point. This time, Blind decided against putting in a cross. Instead, he picked out the quick-thinking Mata with a low pass towards the near post. Mata whipped the ball across the six-yard area and Rashford, showing his speed of thought, dived in to apply the finishing touch.
The paradox is that it had actually been a plodding start from the home side, looking decidedly uneasy after the two previous league defeats that had led to prolonged criticism of the side. But Smalling's goal had therapeutic qualities.
Mata certainly justified his place and his goal originated from the game's outstanding move. Pogba was involved again and it was a lovely touch from Lingard to create the shooting opportunity. The most impressive part, however, was that Mata had started the exchange, playing the ball into Pogba and darting into the penalty area. Two passes later, the ball was back at his feet and he aimed his left-foot shot inside Ron-Robert Zieler's right-hand post.
Perhaps it was just inevitable United would lower their effort after the break, whereas Gray seemed determined to inspire a second-half improvement from the visitors. His goal was a beauty but there was never any chance of a comeback and, for Rooney, there is the lingering thought that he might have to grow accustomed to his new role.