In the heat of Western Australia, Manchester United beat Leeds 4-0 in a pre-season friendly.
Man Utd deployed two different XI’s, one in each half, and both sides won 2-0 with a reasonable degree of comfort to secure a delightful win for their fans. What did we learn?
1. M&M bring the goodness
Romelu Lukaku was meant to be Man Utd’s star man in attack. He’s scored 42 times in 97 games but has often looked like a square peg in a round hole. As a result he is likely to leave the club this transfer window. That would leave United sorely lacking a front-line goalscorer.
Or would it?
Sure, they wouldn’t have a traditional no. 9 in the side, but they’d have options when it comes to forwards that can score. Two of them, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, showed just what they can bring against Leeds.
Both are blisteringly quick and routinely led United on the break. Greenwood opened the scoring by racing into position to slap home a near-post cross. A pure striker’s goal, the kind that show he is capable of at least replacing the goalscoring instincts of Lukaku. Rashford then doubled the lead with a sumptuous strike, leading the breaking before tying his defender up in knots with a delicious stop-and-go move then slotting it home to make it two in two for this pre-season.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Mason Greenwood: "He has a chance to start against Chelsea. I won’t say it is not a possibility. It is a good possibility if he keeps going as he does." pic.twitter.com/NzlZ92ne35
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) July 17, 2019
Two excellent goals, two different goals, both highlighting the goalscoring ability these two possess (Rashford also hit the post minutes into the game) and how their presence will allow United to remain dangerous even if their big Belgian departs. Obviously Rashford will lead the line and look to better his career-high 13 league goals and rack up a tally befitting of a Man Utd striker, but don’t rule Greenwood out from a significant contribution too despite his age. Both boys are academy graduates that love the club, which is a wonderful bonus for a club that places so much pride on their use of young players.
2. Daniel James is rough and ready
Daniel James was signed by Man Utd from Swansea for the thoroughly reasonable fee of £15m. There was plenty of hype around the sheer speed of the boy and what he could bring to the United side. But anyone hoping for an instant impact where he gelled instantly with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s system should perhaps calm down.
It’s clear James is a special talent, but he is very rough in his style of play and doesn’t ever carry with him an assurance on the ball (and he needs to work much harder off it). He looks explosive, for sure, and you end up wondering what he’s going to do with the ball. But that could just as easily be a negative as positive.
Countless times against Leeds he was in a central position, where he would be unable to use his pace to hurt anyone. James is a player who thrives in space, and so moving in from the flank betrays a naivety that will need to be ironed out. But equally the impact he did have when wide, constantly committing his defenders and even hitting the post after a counter-attack, show his promise. There’s no doubt he will improve United and be a useful presence for them this season, but there’s a long, long way to go for the young Welshman yet.
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3. Bielsa will never, ever change
Marcelo Bielsa sat on his box scowling for basically the whole game. Leeds, meanwhile, approached this friendly in sunny Australia like a grim, wind-swept clash in the middle of winter. There was no quarter-given by Leeds. They man-marked United’s key men as they would in a serious game. Adam Forshaw and Kalvin Phillips in particular put in some meaty tackles that really had no place in a friendly – but that was brilliant as it injected a real sense of purpose and intensity into what could have been a dull and lifeless affair.
4. Tahith Chong is something special
Half-time predictably brought changes and one of those was Tahith Chong, the 19-year-old Dutch winger who has been in United’s youth system since 2016. Thus far his best moment for United was being on the pitch during the historic win against PSG in the Champions League. But this game showed that maybe, just maybe, he could be about to explode.
Chong doesn’t have the blistering pace of every other United forward. Not that he’s slow, but he’s not a lightning bolt. However what he has is something that only Anthony Martial also possesses in the United attack; genuine dribbling skill. This boy has magic in his boots. His ability to take players on and beat them with pure balance, skill and audacity is self-evident.
Chong tortured Leeds players almost every time he got the ball. He also worked his socks off defensively, which is always a bonus, but with the ball? Woosh, pure hocus pocus. Chong ducked and dived, destabilising defenders every time. He won United a penalty after some utterly audacious dribbling and a nice run to get into the box and then the kind of cutback that defenders hate.
Pace can be countered by a deep defensive block. That can stifle quick sides as United found at the end of last season. But a player like Chong has the skill to unlock even the meanest defences with his deadly and dynamic dribbling. Like James, he may not be a regular fixture in the United XI this season but today showed why he could have a significant part to play against the deeper, more cynical defences.
5. United’s midfield is meh
Manchester United have a potentially elite attacking unit. Defensively they are one dominant centre-back away from being pretty solid as well. In midfield, however, it’s Paul Pogba and a whole menagerie of mediocrity.
Now being fair some of the players have a lot of potential and could really step up and improve. Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira have bundles of potential and both picked up impressive assists against Leeds. They played reasonably well but neither are top level talents near to Pogba’s level (yet). And Nemanja Matic is simply terrible, woefully below the standard required.
Then there was the fact that United played 4-2-3-1 in both halves today, meaning that the no. 10’s Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard, were good in their attacking movement but couldn’t really help build-up play, especially when United under pressure from the Leeds players. United didn’t have the best shape to break the press.
Because of all this, United don’t have the ability to control the pace of games in any real way. They can take the lead but once they have it they don’t know how to hold opponents at bay with the ball. Everything is either going forward really quickly or just moving slowly and ponderously around the back.
Every single attacking move for United flowed through Pogba including the first two goals, which is great when he’s playing as well as he was today. But if he’s not on form, and remember he is a capricious performer, then your entire midfield is non-existent. And unlike Liverpool, United don’t have the mercurial footballing full-backs to get away with a workhorse midfield.
As much as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs to sign Harry Maguire (or any similarly excellent centre-back) his need to sign a midfielder closer to, or simply on, the level of Paul Pogba is just as big. Better sides than Leeds will brutally punish United if they head into the Premier League season with their midfield constituted as it currently is.