(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match in this blog.)
It is difficult enough for teams to open the season following a World Cup because rotations are out of sync due to player availability.
Add that to the usual third-season chaos Jose Mourinho has had at his previous coaching stops, and you have a recipe for combustion as Manchester United head into Friday night’s Premier League opener versus Leicester City at Old Trafford.
POTENTIAL STARTING LINEUPS
United (25-6-7 in 2017-18) finished distant runners-up to eternal rivals Manchester City, 19 points adrift despite their highest point total (81) in five seasons. It was the club’s best finish since Sir Alex Ferguson made his farewell with his 13th Premier League title in 2013, but there was no silverware for Mourinho after winning the Carabao Cup and Europa League in 2017.
United – similar to other high-profile European clubs – had multiple first-team players participate in the World Cup this summer. Seven of the 11 players who went to Russia reached at least the semifinals.
Of those 11, Marcus Rashford and Phil Jones (England), David De Gea (Spain) and Victor Lindelof (Sweden) are expected to be available for this match. Nothing definitive has been offered regarding the status of Belgium teammates Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini and England duo Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard.
“Rashford will be in a better situation than (Tuesday),” Mourinho told MUTV on Tuesday. “Lindelof the same, Jones the same and let’s see if one of the others is ready to give us a help, 20-25 minutes. Any help that can come from them, is welcome.”
Midfielder Paul Pogba won the title with France, and while he will not play this match, things are tense between him and Mourinho. The United boss offered a backhanded compliment by saying the World Cup “is the perfect habitat for a player like him to give (their best),” to ESPN FC.
This was a pointed observation considering Mourinho spent last season trying to slot Pogba into the type of midfield partnership with Nemanja Matic that France manager Didier Deschamps successfully achieved with Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante.
Mourinho made those comments while United toured the United States. He often cut a frustrated and angry figure between poor performances and the lack of first-team players available. He railed about both following a 4-1 loss to Liverpool in Michigan in which he told The Independent, “We start the game with almost half the players who are not even going to belong on our squad on August 9 (the transfer deadline day). So what did this game give me? Nothing. Nothing at all.”
These comments could be one-time snipes and aggravations, but they also fit Mourinho’s track record when things go pear-shaped in season three. It happened in 2007 in his first stint with Chelsea after winning the Premier League title the season before. A falling out within the locker room with Real Madrid star players including Cristiano Ronaldo marked his third and final season at the Bernabeu in 2013.
And most recently, the third season during his second go-round at Chelsea – again after winning a Premier League title the season before – was so toxic another parting of the ways resulted after nine losses in the first 16 league matches in 2015-16.
But Mourinho is not in jeopardy. His frustration also stems from United chairman Ed Woodward’s failure to land many of the players Mourinho sought in this summer’s transfer window. That shortcoming is magnified by Thursday’s close of the England window compared to the FIFA calendar, which runs until the end of August.
United’s biggest signing was a £47 million transfer for midfielder Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk, who missed out on playing for Brazil at the World Cup due to a knee injury suffered in the tournament run-up. Starlet Diogo Dalot came over from FC Porto with a £19 million price tag, but the 19-year-old will likely start the season behind Antonio Valencia at right back.
With both nursing injuries, though, it is expected Lindelof will get the start at right back. Jones provides depth in central defense in the event Eric Bailly is unable to go after picking up a knock, and Andreas Perreira slots into the defensive midfield role with Matic sidelined by injury.
One marquee player Mourinho will have is attacking winger Alexis Sanchez, who starts his first full season at Old Trafford after arriving from Arsenal in January. His industry will be vital in the early part of the season, especially until Lukaku is ready to return and lead the line.
While United’s star players will eventually return, Leicester City (12-11-15) move on without top playmaker Riyad Mahrez. The Algeria international made his long-sought jump to Manchester City, with the Foxes wrangling a £60 million transfer fee from the reigning champions after a deal fell through in January.
The jury remains out on manager Claude Puel despite guiding Leicester City to a top-half finish following the sacking of Craig Shakespeare. The Foxes won just five of their final 21 (5-6-10) league matches, and filling Mahrez’s role may require multiple players.
James Maddison is expected be first in line, but another option is Mahrez’s compatriot Rachid Ghezzal, who has been reunited with Puel from their Lyon days after a £12 million transfer from Ligue 1 side AS Monaco on Sunday.
“I know the coach and I know his work and I like it,” Ghezzal told Leicester City’s official website. “I want to be here. It’s a good club with many ambitions and many great players. I think I will make a great season.”
Two of those “great players” – defender Harry Maguire and striker Jamie Vardy – may not be available after playing for England. Maguire boosted his stock immensely in that run to the semifinals while in Russia, with Leicester City valuing the centre back at £65 million and rebuffing United’s advances.
Leicester City were active in the summer window, adding promising attacking midfielder Maddison from Norwich City and right back Ricardo Pereira – who played for Puel at Nice – from FC Porto for nearly £50 million combined. The Foxes added to their depth in central defense with veteran Jonny Evans from relegated West Bromwich Albion.
If Vardy – a 20-goal scorer last term – is unavailable, Puel has Kelechi Iheanacho to lead the line. He was on Nigeria’s roster for the World Cup, but fellow Super Eagle Ahmed Musa left for Saudi side Al-Nassr last Saturday. Shinji Okazaki and Islam Slamini remain options as a second striker for Puel.
This is the second straight season Leicester City are playing the league’s Friday night opener, having lost 4-3 at Arsenal in 2017-18. Manchester United are unbeaten in the last seven between the teams (4-3-0), though Maguire rescued a point for the 10-man Foxes with a stoppage-time equaliser that resulted in a 2-2 draw at King Power Stadium on Dec. 23.
United are unbeaten in their last nine (7-2-0) at Old Trafford versus Leicester City since a 1-0 defeat Jan. 31, 1998, and 15-7-2 in the Premier League era. The Red Devils are also 19-5-2 in Premier League home openers, losing only to Everton in 1992 and Swansea City in 2014.
Per Ladbrokes, Manchester United are a solid favorite at 4/9 odds to win, while Leicester City check in at 6/1. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 3/1.
Sanchez offers a good return at 10/3 odds as the first goal-scorer and 6/5 odds as anytime scorer, and his industry offers a good chance of the match’s first goal being scored on a defensive breakdown by Leicester City. That rates him as a better option than Rashford (7/2) and Juan Mata (11/2) among likely United starters for first goal-scorer.
The Chilean has four goals in six lifetime matches versus the Foxes but none in the last three since banging a hat trick in Arsenal’s 5-2 win at King Power Stadium in the 2015-16 season.
A potential parlay could be taking both teams to score (27/10) with a 2-1 Manchester United scoreline (15/2). While he is listed on the right flank of the 4-3-3, it would not be surprising to see Mata track back into the middle of the park to link with Fred and Herrera, giving Rashford the opportunity to use his pace to run at defenders and create scoring chances.
Both sides are far from a finished product, but both defensive midfielders — Wilfred Ndidi for Leicester City and Andres Perreira — are both going to have to put in heavy shifts to put out fires in front of their back lines. Ndidi has grown into this role since the Foxes parted ways with Kante, while Andres Perreira has not had as many opportunities to do so since Matic stepped into the role last season.
Also of note is how Lindelof transitions to right back for this match after a summer of manning a centre back spot for Sweden if Valencia is unable to play. United will do well to work through Sanchez on the left as it serves the double effect of pinning back Ricardo Perreira on the right.
It seems likely both Lukaku and Vardy will be introduced as match-changers for the final half-hour depending on the scoreline, and it would not be surprising to see Maguire starting the match despite Puel’s claims the England duo will not be in the first XI. Given how last season’s lid-lifter was a chaotic seven-goal affair, there should be multiple goals and another win for the home side.
Prediction: Manchester United 2, Leicester City 1