Pile up all the disappointments of last season and you’d still struggle to match the level of disappointment felt by Reds fans at the end of this one. For the first hour, United looked largely magisterial, fully confident if their ability to build on the convincing home victory last weekend by putting aside the more formidable challenge of a Leicester side that always looked able to give United something to think about, but nothing as big as this. At 3-1 up and looking at ease, United crumbled to a devastating defeat that exposed all too vividly the defensive holes that remain beneath the expensive gloss Van Gaal has recently applied to the squad.
At times, United’s passing play in the first half was sublime. Although Leicester started more quickly, once the Reds got into their stride their midfield way was both easy on the eye and decisively forward-thinking. In Blind and Herrera, we now have players who can move on the ball quickly when in possession and anticipated and snuff out danger coming from the opposition. Di Maria can do that too, but adds penetration and a final ball that is one of the best in football. Like Ronaldo, opposition defenders either have to over-commit or choose to allow him to run at them and either can be devastating.
Despite that, he wasn’t involved in the first goal, which instead saw the lively Falcao feeding his strike partner Van Persie from the left, the latter breaking what for anyone else wouldn’t be a goal drought at all, heading home via a deflection. Pairing the two up front allowed Rooney to drop into the hole at the top of the diamond formation and, although many Reds were disappointed that meant the dropping of Mata, he excelled in the role for much of the game. As well as offering further fortification to the midfield, along with Di Maria he ran the first half and it was no surprise when the two combined to double the Reds’ lead, Rooney freeing the Argentinian with a ball into the box that he deftly chipped over the keeper for a goal that even had some in the Leicester support applauding.
At that point, it looks as if the Reds could run riot but they were pegged back almost immediately when Evans’ failure to get tight on Ulloa allowed the impressive Leicester forward to continue his excellent run of form by hammering decisively past De Gea. It was a reminder both that Leicester possessed enough to get back into the game and also that, for all United’s attacking riches, defensively we remain far from our best, something that would be spelled out in graphic terms by the end of the game. Evans limped off soon afterwards, to be replaced by Smalling: at first this gave the impression of greater stability at the back, but that was to prove illusory.
United continued to show an impressively fluency going forward and almost extended their lead early in the second half when the Leicester crossbar denied Falcao his first goal for the club with a right-footed stab that appeared to come almost from nothing. That couldn’t be said for the third goal when it eventually came: a sustained period of possession featuring some superb interchanging of positions from the Reds’ front five finished with Di Maria’s shot being intelligently diverted into the goal by Herrera. Despite that, further poor defending allowed Leicester back into the game and from there the game changed completely. Rafael, having been denied a blatant free kick outside the area unfortunately chose to even things up inside the box. The result was inevitable: Clattenburg pointed to the spot and Nugent drilled home emphatically.
It got worse. United, clearly flustered, were punished moments later when Cambiasso hammered home from the edge of the box after the ball cannoned off Blackett and into his path. And it didn’t stop there. With Leicester seizing the momentum it only took Mata, recently on for Di Maria, to get caught in possession and for De Laet to play a simple ball in for Vardy, before the energetic Leicester man fired home with only De Gea to beat. If we felt at that point things had got as bad as they could, we were forced to think again: Blackett, attempting to retrieve a desperate situation, fouled in the box and was red-carded, allowing Ulloa the opportunity to make it five from the penalty spot, which he didn’t pass up.
Unquestionably, back luck played some part in the defeat. Not only was it incredible that the foul on Rafael prior to the second Leicester goal wasn’t spotted, but De Laet was lucky to stay on when, already on a level card, he blatantly shoved Di Maria off the pitch in the first half and upended the same player on the edge of the box in the second. It’s the kind of thing people put to the back of their minds when claiming clubs like United get all the decisions. That said, United’s defensive performance here was as poor as the one our youngsters put on at MK Dons and the abject yielding of momentum to the home side as soon as they pulled it back to 3-2 shows that the dropping of heads that became such a familiar feature of United sides last season has not left with David Moyes.