MANCHESTER, England — Dropping Wayne Rooney had the desired effect for Manchester United.
With its out-of-form captain on the bench, United scored four goals in a sparkling first-half display and overwhelmed champion Leicester 4-1 in the English Premier League on Saturday.
Juan Mata — Rooney’s replacement in the No. 10 role — Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba scored in a rampant five-minute spell just before halftime after United had taken the lead through Chris Smalling, the team’s captain in place of the demoted Rooney.
United ended a run of two straight league losses — against Manchester City and Watford — that had ruined its winning start to the campaign and led to widespread criticism of the makeup of Jose Mourinho’s team as well as the coach’s management style.
Rooney bore the brunt of the criticism following his labored displays and Mourinho decided to put his 30-year-old captain on the bench in the biggest call of his United reign to date.
“Sometimes when I read you (in the media), I feel I know nothing about football,” Mourinho said. “But there is one thing I know — the rules of the game. And I can only start with 11 (players).”
Mourinho said it was a tactical decision to drop Rooney, a day after saying the striker had struggled under the weight of media criticism since a poor display for England against Slovakia on Sept. 4.
Leicester’s defending clearly contributed to the scoreline — three of United’s four goals came from left-wing corners — but United’s attacking brio without Rooney’s often slow build-up play was a notch above anything the team has produced this season.
“Today we had intensity, movement and dynamism,” Mourinho said. “To be back home and beat the champions is good.”
Pogba and Mata ran the midfield in front of the anchorman Ander Herrera, Zlatan Ibrahimovic floated around prompting play in his inimitable way, while Rashford was his usual busy, direct self and scored for the third straight game.
Rooney, meanwhile, could only applaud from the bench as the goals flew in.
Leicester was so overwhelmed in the first half that its two chief attacking weapons, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, were substituted at halftime with manager Claudio Ranieri in damage-limitation mode and later acknowledging he was thinking ahead to the Champions League next week.
Ranieri blamed his team’s first-half display on a failure to play as a team after going behind, and a lack of concentration at corners.
“We switched off,” Ranieri said.
A bright start by Leicester was stopped in its tracks by Smalling’s back-post header from Daley Blind’s corner in the 22nd minute. For the rest of the half, it was United at its relentless best.
With the new captain getting the first goal, Rooney’s replacement in the No. 10 position got the second. Pogba clipped a short pass to Jesse Lingard, whose flick found Mata just inside the area and he fired home in the 37th.
Mata set up the third, receiving a quickly-taken corner by Blind next to the byline and crossing low for Rashford to tap in. Pogba made it 4-0 by heading in Blind’s outswinging corner for his first goal for United since returning as the world’s most expensive player.
It was Pogba’s best display for United.
“We want to carry on like this,” Pogba said. “I always say one thing — it’s at the end (of the season) when we will see.”
United’s level dropped after the break and Leicester’s reorganized forward line created more openings, one of which saw substitute Demarai Gray smash a diagonal 25-meter shot into the top corner.
Rooney came on in the 83rd minute to applause, taking his place on the left wing, but the game was over by then.