United punish Leeds’ hubris with devastating performance
With so much fanfare encircling the build-up, none were left disappointed as Old Trafford played host to perhaps the most compelling encounter between an established top-flight club and a newly promoted team in Premier League history.
Admittedly, there was nothing ‘normal’ about this fixture. Leeds had waited 16 years to reignite this fierce rivalry, and with their veteran coach Marcelo Bielsa facing off against the relatively inexperienced Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, many will have believed the Pennine derby could have gone either way.
On the day however, Bielsa was made to look unadaptable rather than accomplished. The Argentinian mastermind has gained many plaudits for his relentless attacking style regardless of opposition, and has notched some fantastic results with his blockbuster performances.
Against a side that is carving out a legacy as a ruthless counter-attacking team, there was always going to be a mismatch.
Solskjaer set his team up with a clear emphasis on bringing pace into the game, hoping to expose the Leeds defence by laying out a front three of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and the oft-benched Dan James.
United’s fleet-footed attacking trident would go on to see countless opportunities over the next 90 minutes, but the headlines were written inside the first three. Scott McTominay, who was tasked with sitting deep and breaking up play, could simply not resist the space afforded to him and marauded forward not once, but twice in almost as many minutes.
His first, an absolute piledriver from a Bruno Fernandes layoff, was perfectly matched by his sensational second – an excellent run into the box taken with a beautiful touch before a fine finish past Illan Meslier.
With Leeds chasing a two-goal deficit so early in the game, the football became truly end-to-end as both teams flowed forward with reckless abandon.
United had found their killer edge however, and they were soon to notch their third. A typically brutal counter-attack bounced between the midfield and attack before Fred attempted to unleash Martial, and Luke Ayling’s intervention could only roll the ball into the path of Fernandes who lashed it home.
Having set up McTominay’s second and made the run for Fernandes’ first, Martial was again involved in the fourth as he rose high at the near post to nod on Luke Shaw’s corner, giving Victor Lindelöf the perfect chance to tap in United’s fourth of the half.
Despite United’s superior conversion rate, Leeds had put together numerous flowing moves throughout the half and soon deservedly pulled one back. A well delivered corner was met by a Liam Cooper header of equal quality, leaving David De Gea with no hope of keeping his clean sheet.
With the referee signalling the end of 45 minutes of chaos, there was no sign of the intensity of the match waning.
Half-time: Manchester United 4 – 1 Leeds United
While the second half kicked off much the same as the first had, the goal tally stood still for 20 minutes before either side broke through once again.
It was United who ultimately found their fifth, and it came through a joint show of excellence from McTominay and James. The former bruised his way forward in midfield, then drove a fierce ball into the feet of the latter who waited with his back to goal. A sumptuous touch took the ball away from Ayling, and a neat finish was to follow through Meslier’s legs from the boy who came agonisingly close to joining Leeds almost two years ago.
The goals began to flow once again and Rashford, seeing himself outshone by his attacking partners, took possession in the Leeds penalty box and danced back and forth as he searched for a shooting angle. Running out of options, Martial was able to pick up his run only to be chopped down by Pascal Struijk and have a penalty awarded.
Bruno Fernandes made no mistake in scoring his 14th penalty for Manchester United.
Leeds’ never-say-die attitude had allowed the hosts to exploit the space they left behind them all game, but there was a brief moment of respect paid for their indomitable game plan when Stuart Dallas curled in a wonderful effort from 25 yards as an immediate reply to conceding their sixth.
Though Dallas’ effort ended the scoring on the night, both teams continued to play right up until the final whistle. The much-anticipated ‘derby’ had delivered in some fashion, and though Leeds fans will feel bitter at the result, United fans will take this as a much-needed medicine after the government’s announcements earlier in the day.
An entertaining exhibition, most certainly. The beginning of a title charge, perhaps not just yet.
United’s recent form has been both stressful and rewarding for fans, yet the points return speaks for itself. Now sitting in third, five points off the top with a game in hand, United can undoubtedly consider themselves in contention – at the very least mathematically.
The issue however lies with United’s defence. The goals conceded in all of United’s recent victory’s have served as an ever-present asterisk, and despite the formidable attacking display just shown Solskjaer would still go on to remark that ‘it could have been 12 – 4’.
United find themselves sitting pretty in the Premier League table for now – just as they did two games into their Champions League group. For this writer, caution must be exercised before anyone’s hopes rise too high for the season ahead.
Full time: Manchester United 6 – 2 Leeds United
Man of the Match: Scott McTominay