The Saturday lunchtime kick-off in the Premier League was a lively game that involved Manchester United and Leeds United. Leeds making their long-awaited return to Old Trafford in front of a crowd which was sadly missing in this fixture on 20th December 2020. Leeds fans arrived early for kick-off and for anyone watching social media they travelled in numbers with voices thundering from the train station.
United ran out comfortable winners in this fixture last season 6-2 with an early blitz lead by Scott McTominay. Leeds would be looking to learn their lesson this time round to avoid the embarrassment of a repeat.
Master and the Apprentice
Ole Gunnar Solskjær is a complete novice when you compare him to someone with the experience of Marcello Bielsa. With over 40 years of coaching Bielsa is internationally renowned having managed in Italy/Spain/France and of course now England. Leeds have a resounding method of playing which rarely has a dull 90 minutes. Last season Leeds made headlines by beating Manchester City but not just by winning but more the manner in which they defeated the would-be champions. Away from home and with 10 men they pulled off a result that was impressive as any that season.
Solskjær has had a rollercoaster ride in Manchester. Being the head of such a massive club comes with huge pressure. Every time he seems to be under the most compelling pressure though he seems to pull a rabbit out of the hat and prove his doubters wrong. This season he has added cleverly to his ranks with Sancho for youth and Varane with experience. Time will tell if he now has enough to mount a serious challenge to the title.
Solskjær went with an expected back four with two low lying blockers in Fred and McTominay. Midfield had a reshuffle with Pogba and James making up the wings with Fernandez playing in the hole. Greenwood was fancied up front after his summer of rest. This gave a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation that he obviously feels comfortable with. United like to compress the middle of the field then when breaking ball gets turned over they can counter attack with pace.
Leeds went with an almost set-in-stone approach that has served them well in their return to the top flight. 4-1-4-1 is the method with one holding midfielder, Robin Koch despite being more of a defender. Harrison and Raphina make up the wings with Rodrigo and Klitch supporting Bamford. Everyone goes man to man and the intent is to create attacking opportunities by overloading when going forward. It is a risk versus reward approach. The kind that would give Jose Mourinho the feeling of being in hell!
Early warning Signs
Manchester United started this game with serious intent. Pressing the Leeds holding midfielder at every opportunity. Koch was hurried on numerous occasions into playing risky balls forward which were eaten up by the Manchester players. The problem then is of course by playing man to man marking you become exposed immediately with 4v4 defending at the back. The triangle of Pogba/Fernandez and Greenwood in particular, were looking dangerous with every attack.
Harrison and Raphina were also having trouble on the front foot with Manchester fullbacks Shaw and Wan-Bissaka both looking comfortable in their 1v1 duels. This was again having repercussions for Leeds as they struggled to gain any territory in the match. As the game worse on signs were ominous that a home win was there for the taking.
It was of no surprise that Bruno Fernandez was the one to break the deadlock when he stole in behind the Leeds backline. A one touch pass from Pogba split the defenders and Fernandez tucked the ball under the keeper. As the half progressed, he was trying this run numerous times the question was could his team-mates find the right pass.
A wonderful strike against the run of play from Ayling broke the tide briefly. But the away side couldn’t last more than two minutes before going behind again. This time Fred produced a wonderful pass in behind the Leeds left full. It was a footrace with Greenwood and Struijk to see who would prevail. The Manchester youngster showed a keen set of heels and drove across the center back and produced a fine finish.
Bruno Fernandez then received another through ball from Pogba and after a carbon copy pass from his earlier goal. This time he cooly twisted and turned to find a shot. It needed goal-line technology to confirm but there was no denying the Portuguese. Then a contender for pass of the season seen Lindelof of all people split the Leeds defence and again Fernandez was on hand to smash a volley home.
When you look at the stats, the game was even enough. Possession was split, passes were close and even accuracy was split. Contrasting styles were the difference in this game. One side were clear in their approach and setup in a method to inflict the most damage on the counter. Bielsa has proven though through last season that he would not budge on his values. Leeds play an attacking open style regardless of how vulnerable it makes them at times.
Last season the combination of Fred and McTominay as blockers was enough to keep Leeds from productively countering the United defence. They conceded six times and were over ran at times at the back. Bielsa has had enough time to reflect on this. After 10 mins on Saturday, it was clear that Leeds are not perhaps up to full speed after pre-season. But for 90 mins it never changed. Leeds conceded five and it could have been more.
It will be interesting how they approach the game when these two sides meet at Elland Road. At times Leeds a joy to behold with their willingness to take the fight to teams no matter who they are. Even when they are a goal or two down, they have a superb team spirit and fight to the death. It’s what makes them an entertaining team to watch. But now after shipping 12 goals in two big losses I wonder will Bielsa rethink.
For me, I will be watching with interest to see how Leeds deal with this loss in their next game against Everton. A team that will surely setup to play in the exact same manner as Manchester United. Will Bielsa come up with a master class of coaching that will turn the tide, or will he stick with the tried and tested method. Time will tell.