The Ole Gunnar Solskjær bandwagon rolls on. For the first time since the days when Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge – back in the 2012-13 season – Manchester United have racked up five successive away victories, the latest arriving courtesy of a player who has looked reborn ever since the Norwegian took over at Old Trafford.
Marcus Rashford has now scored six times in 10 games under Solskjær and this was a fitting way for the 21-year-old to mark his 100th Premier League appearance. The fact that Ryan Giggs is the only United player to have reached that landmark at a younger age – there are only 20 days in it – says much about Rashford’s impact at the club since he burst on to the scene as a teenager.
Perhaps most significantly, Rashford is playing with a smile on his face again, revelling in the responsibility that Solskjær has given him to lead the line (Romelu Lukaku dropped to the bench again here) and be the focal point of a United team who remain unbeaten since José Mourinho was sacked.
It is now nine wins and one draw under Solskjær, with this narrow victory proof that United are capable of grinding out results without playing particularly well. Leicester, who have beaten Chelsea and Manchester City and drawn with Liverpool over the last six weeks, certainly had enough chances to derail United’s momentum and take points off another top-six team but they lacked the clinical edge to punish Solskjær’s side for a rather flat display.
Solskjær – who dashed off to Lyon afterwards to watch Paris Saint-Germain, United’s next opponent in the Champions League, play against Lyon – was delighted with the character that his players showed. “Our attitude was spot on,” he said. “There are a couple of bruised noses and knees – it is supposed to be like this. There are three points on the line. Our lads sacrificed everything they had. They know they can do better than this but a clean sheet is always a foundation to build on.”
That clean sheet was partly down to some typically excellent goalkeeping from David de Gea but also Leicester’s profligacy. Jamie Vardy had a decent chance in the closing stages, after the impressive Harvey Barnes broke away on the left flank, and it was a source of frustration for Leicester that two other presentable opportunities fell to defenders. Jonny Evans missed his kick in front of goal with 10 minutes to go and Harry Maguire screwed a shot wide in injury time.
From Leicester’s perspective the damage was done early on and that has become a recurrent theme for this team. For the fifth match in succession Claude Puel’s team conceded a goal inside the first 10 minutes. “We do not all take our responsibility, which is a big shame,” Puel said. “We can do things in training but the reality is we must do it on the pitch and have character to start the game.”
To make matters worse, Leicester were architects of their own downfall. Ricardo Pereira, picking up the ball deep inside the Leicester half, played a loose and careless pass intended for Nampalys Mendy. Paul Pogba easily cut the ball out and flighted a perfectly weighted pass beyond Maguire and Ben Chilwell. Rashford, who had headed a fine chance over the bar five minutes earlier, was not going to be as forgiving this time.
He cushioned Pogba’s pass beautifully with his first touch and thrashed it home powerfully and unerringly with his second, giving Kasper Schmeichel no chance. “Against a Schmeichel you would think you might want to try through his legs but it was a great finish,” said Solskjær. “The kid is improving and improving. He’s played a lot of games and he got a dead leg earlier on but he struggled through it, so well done.”
Leicester looked a little shell-shocked at that point but started to eke their way back into the game as United retreated deeper and lost some control in central midfield.
James Maddison’s eyes lit up when the ball dropped kindly to him after ricocheting off a couple of United players but his shot from little more than 12 yards was brilliantly blocked by Luke Shaw’s last-ditch challenge.
The home team continued to press for an equaliser after the restart, with Vardy’s acrobatic volley gathered by De Gea at the second attempt. Puel then withdrew Maddison and replaced him with Rachid Ghezzal, prompting boos from the home supporters. “I wanted to give more possibility and freshness to try to hurt United,” explained the Leicester manager.
While it was a curious decision, Ghezzal did come close to bringing parity with a 30-yard free-kick that De Gea spectacularly clawed away from the top corner. Another Ghezzal free-kick, this time crossed into the United area from out wide, was headed back across goal by Maguire only for Evans to thrash at thin air.
With the game stretched, chances came and went for both teams. Lukaku and Anthony Martial, both second-half substitutes for United, were denied by Schmeichel as the visitors hit Leicester on the counterattack in search of a second goal. At the other end Vardy shot tamely at De Gea and Maguire had that late opportunity that rolled agonisingly wide of the far upright.