Was that a smile on José Mourinho’s face? Blink, and you might have missed it, but at least Manchester United have begun the new campaign with a victory and after all the sullenness of pre-season, the complaints about the club’s transfer business and the overwhelming suspicion that the manager is having one hell of a sulk, this was a reminder that winning football matches makes everything feel so much better. For now at least, Old Trafford feels like a happy place again.
Not that this victory provided too much evidence that United are genuinely equipped to improve on last season’s position as runners-up. They struggled to impose themselves for long spells against a robust and adventurous Leicester side and, briefly, it was a wave of apprehension engulfing the stadium when Jamie Vardy’s stoppage-time header gave the away side the opportunity to pull off a dramatic feat of escapology. The drama finished with a Leicester corner from which Kasper Schmeichel, their own goalkeeper, won the header, having made the kind of forward foray that must have reminded the Old Trafford crowd of his father’s time in the same profession. If that header had gone in, we can only imagine what Mourinho might have had to say afterwards.
As it was, he restricted himself to only a couple of veiled digs towards the club’s hierarchy – his latest line being that perhaps he should be known as a head coach, rather than the manager, if the club did not want to go after his transfer targets – and United could reflect on a satisfying though unspectacular evening’s work, as it often is on his watch. Paul Pogba, the game’s outstanding performer, carried on where he left off in the World Cup. Fred, the £52m acquisition from Shakhtar Donetsk, had a competent debut and Luke Shaw’s confidence should be soothed from hooking in the goal that ultimately decided the match.
Leicester, meanwhile, have not started a top-division season with an away win since beating Aston Villa in 1933. They have won only one of their last ten opening-day fixtures and made life unnecessarily difficult for themselves with the silly handball from Daniel Amartey that gave Pogba the chance to open the scoring with a penalty inside the opening three minutes.
At other times, however, Claude Puel must have been encouraged by the way his team took the game to their opponents. Indeed, it would not have been absurd if the visitors had left with a draw bearing in mind the balance of play when the score was 1-0. James Maddison showed why his new employers were willing to pay £24m to sign him from Norwich City. Demarai Gray seemed keen to explore the theory that Matteo Darmian, deputising as United’s right-back, might be vulnerable and at one point late in the first half the away end could even be heard taunting Mourinho with the “park the bus” song favoured by Manchester City’s followers.
In truth, it was not quite that troublesome for the home team but, equally, United’s supporters might have been entitled to expect more from their players. Marcus Rashford, in particular, looked rusty. Alexis Sánchez has rarely shown Old Trafford the gifts he once displayed for Arsenal and perhaps it was inevitable that United would endure some difficult moments at the back bearing in mind their defence was made up of four players who were largely used as understudies last season.
Harry Maguire, one of the centre-backs Mourinho coveted over the summer, was playing for the opposition, reminding us why Gareth Southgate had eulogised in the World Cup about the player’s knack of “getting his bonce on everything.” Southgate was here, too, and no doubt will be pleased to see Shaw back in the United team, looking fit and confident. Yet the attention of the England manager might also have been drawn to the opposition left-back, Ben Chilwell, who had a fine game.
Shaw had one awkward moment when Vardy dispossessed him close to his own penalty area but he got away with that one and made amends in the 82nd minute by surging forwards, controlling Juan Mata’s pass and bustling past Ricardo Pereira before turning a diagonal shot past Schmeichel.
Vardy’s goal was an instinctive close-range header after a cross from the right missed everyone, spinning back towards him off the post, but Leicester could not conjure up an equaliser and will reflect on the moment, with only 75 seconds on the clock, when Sanchez let fly from the edge of the penalty area and Amartey gave away the penalty. Wes Morgan got in the way of the shot but the next Leicester player to touch the ball did so by jutting out his arm to bring it under control. Pogba was wearing the captain’s armband in the absence of Antonio Valencia and, after one of the slowest run-ups imaginable, it was an elegantly struck penalty to send the ball into the top corner.
Pogba’s selection might have come as a surprise given that he returned from his post-World Cup break only four days earlier but that, perhaps, is the attitude that Mourinho wants to see from his most expensive player. Pogba lasted until the 84th minute and Mourinho described him as a “monster”. The nutmeg from Pogba on Ricardo Pereira was a joy. Andreas Pereira, back from his loan arrangement with Valencia, fitted in neatly as a deep-lying midfielder, but United were let down too often in attacking positions by their final pass. They won, and they were happy, but when Mourinho talked about the “complete performance‚“ he was meaning Shaw, rather than the team as a whole.