When the Premier League fixtures for 2020-21 were announced on August 20 last year, Leeds United fans will have had one thing at the front of their minds: playing against Manchester United.
Having confirmed their promotion back to the top flight for the first time since their 2004 relegation, Leeds were preparing for a momentous season and that would mean the resuming of hostilities with their great rivals.
The Premier League had been without one of English football’s fiercest rivalries for more than 16 years, and when they finally met on December 20, Leeds fans – regardless of there being no crowd at Old Trafford – were going to relish every minute, confident that Marcelo Bielsa had put together a team capable of leaving with a historic win.
They were back and Manchester United were going to know about it.
Except, that’s not quite how it went down, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men bludgeoned their visitors and claimed a remarkable 6-2 win.
While no one would have necessarily batted an eye if United claimed a win by one or two goals, the fact they scored six for the first time in the Premier League since beating Arsenal 8-2 in 2011 had fans and pundits in shock.
As Leeds look to gain a measure of revenge on Sunday, we looked back at how United secured such an incredible win.
That trip to Old Trafford swiftly turned into a nightmare for Leeds as Scott McTominay became the first player in Premier League history to score twice in the first three minutes of a match.
Both goals highlighted a key area of United’s plan and that seemed to catch Leeds off-guard, as McTominay is generally deployed in a deeper role, but here he was encouraged to power forward often.
Leeds were seemingly not expecting the Scotland international to play such an aggressive role, perhaps predicting it would be Bruno Fernandes to be making the late runs into the box.
But McTominay routinely burst into forward areas of the pitch from deep, often running into the space that Fernandes vacated, dragging Kalvin Phillips with him.
Carries data, in particular, highlights the altered role McTominay played in, as he moved 243.9 metres in possession of the ball and covered 151.2m carrying the ball upfield.
Both were far greater than what would be considered his usual output for 2020-21, as his average carry progress upfield is 86.95m and overall carry average is 173.44m per 90 minutes.
Additionally, the average distance of his carries was 15.3 metres, higher than he has posted in any other match this season.
While neither of McTominay’s goals came from direct carries, the data highlights how his role was considerably more forward-thinking than normal, and this was demonstrated perfectly with his two early strikes as he charged into the final third.
McTominay wasn’t the only United player told to play slightly differently – there was also a notable change to David de Gea as the Spanish goalkeeper was seemingly instructed to produce more long passes.
Of De Gea’s 26 passes, 69 per cent were considered by Opta to be long. On only one occasion in the Premier League this season has he attempted a higher percentage of long passes.
But why is this significant?
United’s average starting position of 41.7 metres from their own goal showed that their defensive line was deeper than their average for the rest of the season (42.5m), while Leeds started significantly higher (43.4m) up the pitch than they normally would (40.8).
The hosts’ decision to sit deeper took away some of the risk posed by the combination of their tendency to play out from the back and Leeds’ desire to press high.
After all, United and Leeds are both guilty of losing possession within 40m of their own goal a lot (a league-high 274 times for Leeds, 260 for United), but Solskjaer’s set-up helped to negate the effectiveness of Bielsa’s men when winning the ball back (240 high turnovers, fifth-best in the league).
United’s system also forced the visitors’ defence to engage the ball further from their own goal.
De Gea’s long kicks would ensure that engagement and subsequently create space in behind the Leeds defence, with Daniel James, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Bruno Fernandes and even McTominay able to exploit this.
Further proof of De Gea’s kicking having an impact is the fact he was involved in three open-play sequences that ended in a shot – his seasonal average is 0.55 per 90 minutes. Similarly, the total xG (expected goals) value of open-play shot-ending sequences that he was involved in was 0.35, far exceeding his 0.08 average for the whole campaign.
And on top of that, De Gea has started five sequences that ended in a shot in 2020-21 – two of those came against Leeds.
A lot was made of United’s pressing against Leeds, but in reflection that appears to have been a red herring. While they were by no means bad, their seven high turnovers is equal to their seasonal average per game.
Granted, Leeds’ own defensive issues didn’t help – such as the defending at the corner for Victor Lindelof’s goal, Illan Meslier’s goalkeeping for Daniel James’ effort, or the clumsy foul that conceded the penalty buried by Fernandes.
But rather than unrelenting pressing forcing Leeds into a corner, it was United’s tactics that set the tone and the away side hit the self-destruct button.
Now, we mustn’t disregard that this match was an outlier – United were freakishly clinical, as evidenced by the fact their six goals came from a collective xG value of just 3.65.
In fact, their cumulative xG records in the match were extremely similar more or less all the way up to United going 5-1 up.
But there’s no getting away from the fact Solskjaer got his set-up spot-on, with the intention being to stretch Leeds beyond their structural capabilities and use their positivity against them.
It worked like a charm.
As United go to Elland Road on Sunday, it’s only natural to wonder if they can do it again: is their system ideal for exploiting Leeds’ weaknesses?
After all, Bielsa has made clear that his belief in the Leeds set-up is unwavering. If Solskjaer dismantled it once, there’s got to be a chance he can do it again.
But do not mistake Bielsa’s faith for naivety – if any coach has a trick up his sleeve, it’s Bielsa.
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