Football Features

Leeds 2-4 Man Utd: ‘Pressure-resistant’ Pogba produces dribbling masterclass — but Ronaldo joins unwanted xG club

By Ben Green

Published: 16:23, 20 February 2022 | Updated: 12:31, 16 March 2022

After a chaotic, helter-skelter showdown at Elland Road between Manchester United and Leeds United, the visitors ran out 4-2 victors to settle another frantic derby.

The visitors took the ascendency in the opening exchanges and found themselves 2-0 by the halfway stage, looking comfortable and relatively unthreatened. Goals from Harry Maguire and Bruno Fernandes separated the sides after 45 minutes.

But in a match that seemed determined to abandon logic and order, the momentum shifted shortly after the restart, with Marcelo Bielsa rewarded for shuffling the pack at the interval and throwing 19-year-old Joe Gelhardt and talisman Raphinha into the inferno.

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Two goals in the space of a minute turned the game on its head, with Rodrigo catching David de Gea cold with a cross-cum-shot that curled into the top corner, before Raphinha vindicated his manager’s decision to introduce him at the break with a tap-in equaliser seconds after.

For all the energy exhausted in a high-octane encounter between two sides who encapsulate the intense pressing brands of their respective managers — Ralf Rangnick the so-called ‘Godfather of Gegenpress’, and Bielsa the ‘murder-ball’ obsessor — there was certainly no shortage of quality.

And it would be Man Utd who ultimately stole the show in the end, with Rangnick following Bielsa’s pragmatism and introducing Fred, who immediately fired his side back in front, before Anthony Elange put the gloss on a six-goal thriller that went Man Utd’s way at the death.

Paul Pogba, who produced four assists in his side’s curtain-raiser against Leeds United this season, exhibited another display of dazzling and mesmeric quality, completing more dribbles than any other player on the pitch (five) — with a 100% take-on rate — and showcasing a highlight reel of showboats.

Adam Forshaw, tasked with man-marking Pogba, looked almost childlike at times as Pogba toyed with him, pirouetting for fun, jinking like a man possessed, and at one stage flicking the ball over him like a Jay-Jay Okocha tribute act before spreading the play.

The consistency levels of Pogba will forever seem to dominate his Man Utd narrative, but you’d have to be the biggest skeptic to deny his footballing quality, particularly under pressure and in close quarters, a notion that was echoed recently by West Ham and England midfielder Declan Rice.

“People criticise him, but he’s honestly the top three players I’ve ever played against,” the West Ham midfielder recently told BT Sport.

“He’s so strong, so good on the ball, and can take the ball under a crazy amount of pressure. He’s unbelievable and a top guy as well.”

If Pogba’s performance was one of midfield dominance then Cristiano Ronaldo’s one was of frontline concern. It was a recent familiar tale of near-anonymity in the final third for Ronaldo, save for one glorious opportunity to break the deadlock in the first half.

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As Pogba dismissively bypassed Forshaw he delivered a pinpoint low cross into the Leeds box to Ronaldo. For all the world it looked like Ronaldo would just tap it in and tone down the Elland Road decibel levels, but what looked like a simple finish saw Illan Meslier dive low to deny the forward.

It now means that Ronaldo is one of just three players in the Premier League this season with a disparity between their expected goals (xG) and actual goals scored and at negative three or less (-3.04), scoring just nines goals to his expected goals of 12.04 — the others being Harry Kane (-3.27) and Bryan Mbeumo (-3.3).

It is certainly uncharted territory for a player who has defined a career on scoring goals at a rate otherwise unheard of in European football, but it would appear that, at 37, the veteran sharp-shooter is just starting to look his age in his an area of the pitch that has been his playground for two decades.

In a match where six goals were scored, you’d have expected CR7 to bag at least one.