This season, we have seen a Manchester United that has lacked intensity and motivation, and looked generally flat in all areas. However, and it may have just been because it was their old rivals Leeds United playing against them in this game, they looked up for the game on Sunday, showing energy and determination to score goals and create problems for their opponents. In this article, I will take a closer look at their performance, analysing exactly what changed and why they had control of the game.
Firstly, they had a clear game plan; squeeze Leeds United as far back in their own third as possible. Fred and Scott McTominay are usually deployed as holding midfielders, with McTominay the one asked to link play between defence and attack. However, they both made charging runs forward, helping to stop Leeds breaking through the middle. They also worked with the forward players to create space on the pitch, with the likes of Anthony Martial and Bruno Fernandes making runs across the pitch to draw the Leeds defenders away from the central areas, leaving them open to shoot through. The opening goal from McTominay came from just such a situation.
We mentioned how Fred and McTominay were driving higher up the pitch, and, as well as forcing Leeds back in their own third, it also meant that Manchester United’s key players, such as Fernandes, were receiving the ball higher up the pitch, meaning they had to do less work with it before being in a good position to shoot at goal.Therefore, it was easier for them to shoot at goal, and Manchester United posed more of a threat. Another criticism of Manchester United this season has been how they lack a player who can lead the line, but, if they can allow Fernandes to play in that area much more, by pushing the midfielders higher up the pitch, then this may help to solve that problem.
Defensively, the Red Devils have had issues, both this season and in previous seasons. However, in this game, that too looked much more organised, and they knew how to stop Leeds. Whenever the Whites had the ball in a dangerous area, Manchester United closed down the spaces, forcing Leeds into making errors in possession, whether through pushing a pass too far or simply giving it away too easily, and that made it easy for Manchester United to defend against them. This also came from the fact that they had numbers back in defence, all in a dense structure, which meant that, when Leeds did lose the ball, as they did numerous times, Manchester United could get to it first and clear it. This is something they have not done too much of this season so far, because they have not been in the right positions to get to the ball before their opponents on most occasions. In this game, when they did win the ball, they were then able to launch a counter-attack, and this links us back to their midfielders pushing higher up the pitch with the ball. Therefore, we can see how each element of their game plan linked up to help them dominate the game.
As far as Leeds went, they left a lot of space open at the back, which allowed Manchester United to get between their players and shoot at goal from simple areas. We have seen how Leeds are a very attacking side, and always carry a threat in the final third. However, defending is where they are being let down, with set-pieces a particular worry. Manchester United had obviously looked at this, and had a plan for stretching the defence out, making it harder for Leeds to block their forward runs. Firstly, the two wide forwards were asked to play as wide as possible, which meant that the Leeds defenders moved out to mark them. However, that created spaces in the middle, and that was where the likes of Brazil left-back Alex Telles, who is quick and likes to get into those gaps, constantly ran into and shot at goal from. This is nothing special, in this sense, but is just the basics of football; making the pitch as big as possible when attacking, and as small as possible when defending. However, Manchester United made it work in this game, and it was a key reason for their huge victory over their old rivals.
In conclusion, whilst this has not been a long analysis, we have looked at a few key tactical points that came out of Manchester United’s game against Leeds United on Sunday. The Red Devils have not played good football this season, but are now sitting in third place, one point behind Leicester City and five behind leaders Liverpool, with a game in hand over the Reds. Therefore, whilst it confuses most people how they have managed to do it, given the poor results and performances they have had this season, they are in a good place at the moment, especially when compared to another of the traditional “top six”, Arsenal, who are really struggling. If they can keep playing football like this, which we have always known they can do, then there’s no reason why they can’t stay there. However, whether they will or not depends on whether they can apply themselves in the same way in every game, and that is an entirely different question altogether.