For all of the talk about the ways in which Erik ten Hag may or may not revolutionise Manchester United, for now it seems the team are quite happy grinding out results, as they recorded a third straight Premier League victory for the first time since before last Christmas.
The performance was largely as gutsy as it was pretty but Jadon Sancho’s superbly taken first-half strike was enough to secure United successive away wins for the first time since last September. Judging by the way Diogo Dalot celebrated a sliding tackle that prevented Harvey Barnes from centring the ball and won United a goal-kick with 20 minutes to go, the players recognise the value of a resilience that eluded them at the start of this season. Dalot bumped chests with Lisandro Martínez before high-fiving Raphaël Varane and Scott McTominay.
For Leicester, who remain bottom of the table after their worst start since 1994, it was another dispiriting result, a fourth defeat in five matches, and they were roundly booed off at full-time. They could have grabbed a point had James Justin shot on target after latching on to Patson Daka’s clever pass into stoppage time. Equally United would have doubled their advantage had Jonny Evans not beaten Christian Eriksen to Cristiano Ronaldo’s perfect centre and the Portuguese, again a second-half substitute, also went close with an acrobatic scissors kick.
More often than not programme notes amount to nothing more than empty platitudes but the Leicester chairman, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, used his to address some of the questions that have surrounded the club throughout a trying and destabilising summer in which Wout Faes, a £15m arrival from Reims, represented their only outfield signing. Aiyawatt reassured supporters that the club’s financial footing is as safe as ever in his time at the club and referenced the close of the transfer window as an opportunity for Brendan Rodgers to reset.
Much of the last few weeks has been dominated by Wesley Fofana, who accused Rodgers of choosing to “expose me a lot lately” after completing his move to Chelsea. The manager responded by discounting that message. “I know where the statement came from and I know it wasn’t Wesley Fofana,” he said.
Rodgers was not interested in sugarcoating things. “I’m happy that the window has shut,” he said. “There have been huge distractions for us. To have to watch virtually every single club in the top five leagues get players in and not to be able to improve was difficult, not just as a manager but for the players as well, because players want to compete. This group have shown they can compete but we needed help. Unfortunately I’ve been unable to get that. In terms of results, it’s my responsibility and I take that. We won’t hide behind the rock and go away.”
For Ten Hag, who spent much of the game surveying the scene hands in pockets on the edge of his technical area, the buzzword in recent days has been standards, with the Dutchman stressing the importance of maintaining them. Ten Hag has acknowledged United remain a work in progress but they do look increasingly comfortable in their own skin, even if this was not a riveting display. Sancho seems a different player to the one weighed down by expectations and Marcus Rashford appears to have rediscovered the fearlessness that helped him burst on to the scene.
Until conceding on 23 minutes Leicester had not done an awful lot wrong but they were punished for a defensive lapse. The galling thing for Rodgers was that it stemmed from Danny Ward booming a clearance upfield. Leicester failed to make the ball stick and United feasted on their opponents’ dishevelment.
Dalot located Bruno Fernandes, who strayed out on the right flank, free of the attention of Luke Thomas, who was caught upfield and out of position. The United captain found Rashford, who simply nudged the ball into Sancho. Leicester looked towards the assistant referee for an offside that never arrived and Sancho coolly rounded Ward in the Leicester goal.
“I think he had a quite good pre-season,” Ten Hag said of Sancho. “He had to invest physically. I’m sure that this is just the start for him. With his potential there is much more room for improvement.”
Moments earlier Leicester had enjoyed arguably their best spell of a first half light on quality but United’s goal punctured belief and exposed the hosts’ vulnerability. From there some Leicester players were guilty of trying too hard, panicking in their attempts to source an equaliser.
Barnes did draw gasps after a curling effort out of nothing from 20 yards flashed over David de Gea’s upright but they came closest to equalising in the second half when James Maddison forced De Gea into a fine save from a free-kick. United were ordinary but Leicester struggled to penetrate a United team reaping the rewards of a new-found steeliness. “We hoped to start the season with two wins but that woke us up and I am happy to get the third,” Sancho said.