Manchester Utd 2 (Rashford 62, Sancho 70)
Leeds United 2 (Gnonto 1, Varance og 48)
8th February 2023, Premier League.
Brave, gritty, and adventurous on the break, all terms I’ve seen applied to our performance at Old Trafford last night. The key was probably the way we took the game to the home side right from the off and that, and the fact that the Reds appeared to start slowly themselves, allowed Leeds to rock them back on their heels in the early part of the game and silence their fans. It was not a dissimilar performance to the one we saw at Anfield a few months ago and the match stats are also very similar. I know they are a top team, but we also can't ignore the fact that yet again, for the umpteenth time this season we have given up a decent lead and thus given away points.
Willy Gnonto was once again the torch that lit the blue touch paper. Collecting a loose ball following a crunching tackle by Pascal Struijk on Bruno Fernandes who’d only just freed himself from a tussle with Tyler Adams, Willy pushed forward, all pace and muscle in the 1st minute. He played a quick one-two with Patrick Bamford outside the Man United area in front of the Stretford End and then, after another quick touch, he fired the ball low into the left corner of the net! It was classic Willy Gnonto, aggressive, quick feet, and taking the shot so early that the keeper had little chance of getting down to it. Willy is clearly picking up all the subtleties of the English Premier League game; he celebrated right in front of the tunnel in the corner of Old Trafford and pointed a finger at his temple in a reprise of the Marcus Rashford celebration. Rashford stood nearby, looked less than amused!
It wasn’t all good news early on; we lost the services of Luis Sinisterra after only eight minutes to what looked like a hamstring injury that will obviously threaten to keep him out yet again just when we thought we’d got him back. It gave Crysencio Summerville a chance to show if he is now ready to fill that other wide spot now that Willy has cemented himself in the left one.
We lost Pascal Struijk too as he got his head in the way of a rocket from Rashford; Junior Firpo replaced him. Leeds had the best of the first 15 minutes though with headers from Wober and Pascal needing de Gea to intervene but slowly the home side got themselves into gear and began to press us back. Sabitzer and Garnacho led the charge with one effort headed away from the line and another tipped acrobatically over the bar by Meslier. In the main though, it was Leeds bodies being thrown in the way of shots raining in on the Leeds goal, blocking everything they could muster.
The second half began much like the first with Leeds seemingly having had a chance to recharge the batteries. Summerville was now getting into his stride and he had an early shot blocked and Leeds had a couple of corners. Then, incredibly, we stretched the lead! Harrison, Firpo, and Koch were all surrounding Garnacho before Koch came away with the ball. He pushed it wide left to Gnonto and Willy slid the ball toward the byline for Summerville. Cry hit it low towards the near post and Varane could only deflect it past de Gea. Dreamland!
It didn’t last long of course, partly due to a couple of Man United substitutions – Sancho and Pellistri replacing Garnacho and the woeful Weghurst – and inevitably as the Leeds legs started to tire. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been singing that "Rashford and Sancho let their country down" as it was those two who punished us as the half wore on.
I have to say it was disappointing to see the way Rashford got above Robin Koch to head the first and equally annoying to see Luke Shaw and Sancho get behind our back line with a one-two that ended with Sancho firing home through a crowd of Leeds defenders and, seemingly, straight through Meslier as well. The defence had stood up well to the pressure in the first half but those gremlins are clearly still lurking there.
It finished 2 – 2 with Leeds having an Aaronson free kick hitting the post and another fine Meslier save from a Varane header at the other end. Leeds sent on Aaronson and Rutter for Harrison and Bamford who’d both had poor games. Quite why we are only seeing odd glimpses of the player we know Harrison can be and why Bamford looked so good for a couple of games but now seems back to the lost soul we’d seen for so long, I don’t understand, but both need to up their games. We had looked to have an abundance of forwards only a few days ago, now, with Rodrigo out, Sinistera out, and Bamford and Harrison not firing, it doesn't look quite so appealing. Greenwood and Mat Joseph were late subs to run the clock down.
Of the new boys, Wober was again immense while for me, McKennie didn’t really offer all that much and neither did Rutter in the half hour he had. I know it’s early days but neither looks totally suited to our game at the moment.
The big question now is whether we can replicate the result or even improve on it come Sunday in the return at Elland Road. The crowd will certainly be up for it, whether or not we have a new man in the dugout by then. My belief is that we will need to be even more aggressive going forward to try to keep Man United on the back foot; the combination of our still vulnerable defence, and their undoubted attacking guile, means that the more time we give them in our half on the ball the more likely they will get through us. I’d take the same result again now if you offered it to me.
Manchester U Leeds U
Possession 66% 34%
Shots 24 8
On Target 7 2
Corners 6 5
Fouls 7 11