Maybe Manchester United should start this brightly more often. Not only were they two goals up before the first three minutes were out but they were continuously pushing Leeds United’s usually high line back. There was an energy and looseness about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side that felt quite appealing.
United have been slow-starters this season but were 2-0 up inside three minutes, Scott McTominay scoring twice. Further goals by Bruno Fernandes and Victor Lindelöf and one from Liam Cooper for Leeds made it 4-1 at the interval.
A second from Fernandes, Daniel James’s first league goal since August 2019 and Stuart Dallas’s fine finish for the Yorkshire club completed the scoring and gave the visitors their partial reward for partaking in an absorbing encounter.
Go hard at home
Given United’s slow starts in games this season, Solskjaer joked pre-match that he might pop a balloon in the dressing room before he sent the players out to wake them up. Well, he must have let off a mini explosion in there as United came out all guns blazing and scored within 67 seconds.
What’s more, United had scored only scored three goals across their first six league games at Old Trafford this season but managed six in 90 minutes here to treble their tally outright. This win was built on a positive performance, which was in stark contrast to the last match here: the dour Manchester derby.
Solskjaer’s decision to start James proved a masterstroke as the Welshman’s pace was able to take advantage of Leeds’ high-line. Attacking teams with purpose, pace and runners from deep tend to win games more often than not - as long as they can maintain shape and solidity off the ball - and that’s what’s required for United to keep pushing this high up the table.
Leeds: naive or die-hard
Meanwhile, this is just how Leeds play: attack at all costs. Whether or not Marcelo Bielsa’s approach of high energy, man-marking and throwing caution to the wind is naive, it is certainly entertaining - even if Leeds have now conceded 30 goals in their first 14 games back in the Premier League, the most in the division.
There is little doubt that the Yorkshire side will have more than enough to stay in the division, even if Bielsa demands extraordinary fitness from his players which could lead to a burnout. But what was interesting here was that their key central midfielder, Kalvin Phillips, could not get into the game. He was unable to get a sniff in a midfield dominated by McTominay and Fred.
It is why Bielsa pulled the 25-year-old at half time and replaced him with the defensive Pascal Struijk while Jamie Shackleton also came on to man-mark Marcus Rashford. So, there is an ounce of pragmatism in Bielsa’s mind after all. Still, had it not been for some fine late saves by Illan Meslier United could have notched up 10 - and that’s no exaggeration.
Play with pace against Leeds and they will play with pace back at you, but there is also a chance that you can get beyond them more often than not too. Is that nativity or a sense of whole-heartedness? That’s up for debate.
McTominay makes history
What is not in question is that McTominay is the first player in the Premier League era to score twice in the opening three minutes of a game. And both of his early goals were taken superbly. He fired in the first from distance and then timed his run into the area perfectly to meet an Anthony Martial pass for his second.
“A physical monster,” was what Solskjaer called him afterwards and it was quite an attacking display from the defensive midfielder who had just six career goals before now. His determination and thrust was key to United starting so positively and ultimately transmitted itself into their best victory of the season so far and their most emphatic in nine years.
United are in the mix
This win, only their second in the league at Old Trafford this season, catapulted United into third place and into the thick of the title race. United’s season has conjured its fair share of questions already, and it’s only December, but that Solskjaer’s team are only five points behind leaders Liverpool with a game in hand highlights just what a wild season this is shaping up to be. Solskjaer has been lampooned but could eventually be lauded.
The United manager will certainly be hoping this is a sign of things to come, especially at home. They face Everton in a League Cup quarter-final on Wednesday before taking on Leicester City on Boxing Day - every game is huge for United but the next few could certainly quell further the unrest that built following their premature exit from the Champions League earlier this month.
As to where United currently are, they are in the middle of the two extremes thrown at them. Yes, they are capable of great attacking performances, like this, which combine flair with a positive attitude and solid application but equally they can be sluggish and error-prone.
Whereas one knows what to expect from Leeds every week, one cannot anticipate which United is going to turn up at the moment. Solskjaer will hope it’s this version more often than not.