Reaction, Highlights and Player Ratings : Manchester United 5-1 Leeds 14/8/21

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Some things in football are better and bigger than results. Even at Manchester United. Especially at Manchester United, which is a funny thing to say, you might think.

But as a new Premier League season welcomed a capacity crowd to Old Trafford for the first time in eighteen months, there was cause to reflect upon what we’ve missed, and who we will continue to miss as a consequence of the pandemic. A moment to remember that we are better united than divided.

Being able to walk through the turnstiles was a gift enough but another was waiting for United fans on the other side just before kick off – the announcement of Raphael Varane’s signing, which had obviously been cleverly timed once it was clear he would not be able to participate in today’s game.

Then the whistle blew, and with it, the reminder it is a results business. After a slight hiccup, United put on a real show for the home faithful.

Both sides played with the sort of openness they displayed in December’s game, with United undoubtedly benefitting from the absence of Kalvin Phillips, which allowed Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba freedom to influence the game.

Mason Greenwood, who has enjoyed a full pre-season, looked lively and sharp, but when the ball fell to him in the 11th minute, he probably got a little excited with how soon the chance came – his effort was saved by Meslier.

A minute later, Greenwood did better to find Pogba, and the French international had a wonderful chance – but he went for a stepover, giving his less time to get a full connection on his effort, and his shot, which should have hit the target at least, struck the side netting.

Leeds responded with a couple of long range efforts which De Gea dealt with comfortably.

The game seemed to calm down into a cagier affair but United suddenly sprung to life as the visitors failed to keep possession from a goal-kick. McTominay played the ball to Pogba. He spotted the run of Fernandes quicker than the defenders, and played a fine pass through the middle. From there, the Portuguese schemer only needed to hit the target with power or precision. He went for the first option, and though Meslier got a touch, the ball was bouncing quickly enough to get into the net before a defender could get there.

That was in the 31st minute – five minutes later they might have got two more, with Luke Shaw heavily involved. First, the left-back was invited to stride forward and shoot, and his effort went just wide. Then, he played in James, who screwed his shot off target when aiming for the near post.

United had seen the half out with some comfort – three minutes into the second period, and Leeds had parity, when Luke Ayling was allowed space by Pogba and Fred. Both realised too late – as did Shaw and Maguire – and Ayling struck a clean, unchallenged shot from fully 25 yards, which flew past De Gea into the top corner. There are around 210,000 seconds in a Premier League season – this was a reminder for United that switching off for a single one can be damaging to your chances of success.

If Paul Pogba was at all culpable, a reminder of his brilliance showed twice in the next five minutes. He collected a Shaw pass deep in his own half to play a sublime pass in both accuracy and weight for Greenwood, who carried the ball forward twenty yards and drilled with trademark accuracy in off the post.

Fine margins were at play to get United 3-1 up moments later – Pogba again played Fernandes through, and he took the time to compose himself before getting his shot away. It was cleared by a Leeds shirt, but not before it crossed the line.

United’s creative stars were revelling in the space, and Bruno Fernandes staked his own claim for the man of the match award in the 60th minute when he smashed in his hat-trick goal. Lindelof sent a fine pass through the middle, and Fernandes anticipated it, allowing it to bounce before thrashing it high into the net inside the box.

You know it’s your day when Fred gets in on the act – and that’s what happened in the 68th minute. Greenwood’s pass into space was clever, but that man again, Pogba, played the ball into a perfect area for the Brazilian to arrive on the scene and roll it in. It was the icing on the cake for the Frenchman’s best-ever showing in a United shirt – and he departed the pitch shortly after, for a well-earned rest fifteen minutes from the end.

Jadon Sancho came on for him, playing from the left. His chances to impress will come – the time to impress is more urgent for his substitute partner, Anthony Martial. Today, their fifteen minutes were just enough to stretch their legs against a team desperate to not concede again.

United matched their biggest ever opening day win in the Premier League, 5-1 against Fulham in 2006. That followed a summer of sensible recruitment when their biggest rivals splashed the cash – United went on to win the title with a mindset of accumulating points consistently in potential banana skin games.

It’s much too early to suggest a corner has been turned or a switch has been flicked – Leeds are very generous opponents to face on the opening day – but you can only beat what’s in front of you, and it should not detract from a superb second half showing, particularly from Paul Pogba.

Varane, Cavani, Sancho and maybe another can only improve this side – there’s a lot to be impressed about, and on this showing, maybe a new contract for the midfielder they already have might be money better spent than bringing a new face in.

Ratings

De Gea 7

Wan-Bissaka 7

Lindelof 8

Maguire 7

Shaw 8

McTominay 7

Fred 7

James 7

Fernandes 9

Pogba 10

Greenwood 8

Subs :

Matic, Sancho, Martial

 

Goals

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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