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Man United hit Leeds for six to mount title charge

Manchester United
McTominay (2, 3), Fernandes (20, 70 pen), Lindelof (37), James (66)
Leeds United
Cooper (41), Dallas (73)
Manchester United players celebrate going third in the Premier League
At Old Trafford

The first top-flight Roses derby in 16 years ended with nearly as much bloodshed as the Battle of Bosworth and once again, an emphatic victory for those in red. This was not so much a Manchester United win or Leeds defeat as an outright obliteration, with Marcelo Bielsa’s butterflies crushed under the wheel of an attack that scored twice as many goals as they had previously managed at Old Trafford this season.

United’s biggest win in any competition since the 8-2 over Arsenal nine years ago began with a Scott McTominay brace, was decorated by two more for Bruno Fernandes plus Victor Lindelof and Daniel James goals, and it lifted Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side to third place, five points behind leaders Liverpool with a game in hand. A title challenge is beginning to feel possible.

Solskjaer will only have two complaints: that his players did not score more of their 26 attempts on Illan Meslier’s besieged goal and that they allowed 17 on their own. The scoreline is slightly deceptive, in that respect. Leeds were more than a match for United at one end of the pitch, with Liam Cooper and Stuart Dallas helping to save face, but had no answers to what they faced at the other.

There is an argument that Bielsa’s style was meat and drink for a manager like Solskjaer, whose players thrive on space in behind. Even so, Leeds have kept clean sheets against Aston Villa, Arsenal and Everton this season. They may leave gaps but those gaps must be exploited. United did so ruthlessly. This was the first time that Bielsa has conceded six since managing Newell’s Old Boys in 1992.

United’s struggles to score at Old Trafford have been well-documented. Solskjaer’s side had one league goal from open play in six home games at kick-off and yet they trebled that figure inside three minutes. More incredibly still, McTominay scored both, becoming the first player in Premier League history to score twice in the first three minutes of a match with finishes that Paul Scholes would be proud of.

His first was a low, hard drive struck from the edge of the penalty area like an Exocet, bending out of Illan Meslier’s reach and into the bottom right-hand corner. The second, though, was more subtle. Martial’s through ball into the box came awkwardly, forcing his team-mate to step over the ball, bring it under control and finish with his weaker foot.

McTominay celebrated that tenth career goal with a grin that suggested he too was struggling to believe United’s start. But this was no accident. Solskjaer had clearly targeted the weaknesses in Leeds’ rigid man-to-man marking, instructing his players to swarm and overload their opponents. Dragging Leeds from pillar to post opened space that even the unlikeliest of scorers could exploit.

This was still a contest. Bielsa’s commitment to a uniquely adventurous brand of football would create openings – with Patrick Bamford spurning a gilt-edged opportunity minutes later – but it also played into United’s hands. So often frustrated by bottom-half and newly-promoted teams who come to Old Trafford and soak up pressure, Martial, Marcus Rashford and Daniel James could counter-attack at will.

Leeds dominated possession, as is their wont, but practically every misplaced pass was translated into a United chance. That was how the third came about, with James intercepting on halfway and setting off. A flick by Fernandes then set Fred away, and though Martial was fended off inside the penalty area, the loose ball broke for Fernandes to drive low past Meslier.

It would not be a Leeds defeat without conceding a goal from a set piece. The ninth that Bielsa’s side have allowed from dead ball situations since the start of the season came towards the end of the first half and was again shamefully simple in its execution. All that Luke Shaw’s corner required was a near-post flick on from Martial to find the unlikely figure of Victor Lindelof unmarked to tap in.

Cooper added an air of respectability to the scoreline shortly before half time, rising above Fred to nod a header through De Gea’s right hand, against the post and in, sparking short-lived concerns that United might need a fifth. Not to worry. James’ first league goal since August 2019 – against a club he came close to joining a few months earlier – followed midway through the second half, with the unshackled McTominay laying on a sumptuous assist.

As James took the ball away from a wrong-footed Luke Ayling to move through on goal, Bielsa put his head in his hands. There was more misery to come. Pascal Struijk’s clumsy late challenge on Martial allowed Fernandes to add a sixth from the penalty spot, casually rolling the ball past Meslier. Dallas reduced the arrears with a sweeping strike from range, but the time and space that he had to pick his spot from outside the penalty area spoke to the fact that United’s players already considered this game to be won. 

Is this the same team that was knocked out of the Champions League group stages only a few weeks ago, sparking another round of speculation about Solskjaer’s future? Yes, but they will spend Christmas looking down on their old, beaten rivals and looking up the league table.