When Manchester United play, they become the story. And even when the story really should be something else, it’s still Manchester United.
Going into the 2014/15 season, a new manager took the helm at Old Trafford and Louis van Gaal attempted to claw Manchester United back from the depths they were taken to under the disastrous tenureship of David Moyes.
It was early in the season when they met newly-promoted Leicester City, the most interesting part of whose team was the midfield, which included former Manchester United youngster Danny Drinkwater and a legend of European football in Esteban Cambiasso. It was a jarring juxtaposition: European Cup winner and one of the solid professionals who had attained no higher status within the game than being pasted as a ‘United reject’.
Almost three years on, the Leicester City story is known the world over. It is a fairytale trotted out so often it has become cliched: if Leicester can do it, then why can’t we? But despite the celebrity of the tale, no-one will ever talk about Cambiasso’s part in it. As Nigel Pearson said of the Argentine after the game, he “[ran] the show”.
But when United traveled to the King Power Stadium in September 2014, all eyes were on Louis van Gaal’s side, and their British record transfer Angel di Maria.
But although he and United weren’t the story, they came pretty close to making themselves the headline. Di Maria, scored an audacious lob to beat Kasper Schmeichel with a scooped effort that will remain one of the best goals English football has ever seen. But there are two reasons why it isn’t spoken of more often. One is because the Argentine is seen as a massive flop in England, and the other is because United were Leicester-ed.
And yet, we didn’t know it at the time.
Most people place the start of the Leicester rise to power at their 2-1 victory over West Ham United later in that season, when a late Andy King goal sealed the points for a side who were rooted to the bottom of the table but who would lose only one match from then until the end of the season.
Others place it one game before that, when a valiant effort at White Hart Lane saw the Foxes edged out 4-3 in a thriller – but one that showed fight and resilience.
Few note that Leicester had shown flashes of the same counter-attacking brilliance that would take them to the Premier League crown the very next season. Yet one of the times they showed it was in that 5-3 home victory over Van Gaal’s United. The problem was, after that victory, they lost 11 of their next 13 games, and drew the other two. They didn’t score in six of their next seven.
Naturally, that’s why they were bottom of the table, and that’s why no-one paid attention to the fact that they took Manchester United apart on the counter-attack.
Or, because United are so big that they’re always the story, perhaps it’s because everyone focused on how bad the Red Devils were, rather than how good Leicester were; a trope which would dog the Foxes’ title-winning season, when pundits would spend the first half of the season talking about how bad the other title-chasing teams were.
They would applaud Leicester’s pluckiness at keeping the pace, but point out that they surely couldn’t stay in the top four until the end of the season. And they certainly couldn’t win it.
But despite the fact that the story was all United, despite the fact they lost 5-3, there’s a certain aptness in that. It proves how easy it was for Leicester to fly under the radar. It was perhaps their best performance of the season, despite the run of form that saw them escape relegation sensationally at the end of the campaign.
And it’s also what allowed them to fly so far under the radar the next season, too. And by the time other teams figured out what was happening, it was too late. The momentum had set in, and Leicester were unstoppable.
This weekend, when Leicester travel to Old Trafford to face Manchester United again, maybe that’s something we should keep in mind. The Foxes may be unlikely to win the league again this year, but the story of the game might not boil down to how brilliant or how poor Manchester United were.