In a tight afternoon of football, Manchester United and Leeds played out an intense 0-0 draw.
After a 6-2 goalfest, this one was a very different but engaging in its own way. At the very least the result makes it five draws out of five games whenever any of the “big six” has come to Elland Road. But what did we learn?
1. The Tackle Gods dominate
Two of the most dominant tacklers in the Premier League this season have been right-backs, and both were playing today. Luke Ayling and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were absolutely fantastic in a tight 0-0 draw, perhaps the best players on the pitch.
Ayling extended his lead as the undisputed tackle deity with an incredible 7 tackles on the night as he was constantly combating the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba. He was fighting fires the whole time and did it well.
By contrast Wan-Bissaka only made 1 tackle, but made game-highs for interceptions (5) and clearances (4). He was absolutely impassable down the right no matter how much Leeds tried to work around him and avoid engaging the best 1-v-1 defender in Europe in a 1-v-1 duel.
Wan-Bissaka even completed an incredible 5/6 take-ons as he tried in vain to jumpstart the United attacks all by himself. It didn’t work, sure, but Wan-Bissaka, like Ayling, performed their primary job to perfection.
2. Leeds have learned their lesson
As you’d expect when a great manager gets humiliated, Marcelo Bielsa has learned his lesson. The Red Devils cut Leeds to pieces at Old Trafford, winning 6-2 using a stunningly direct approach that saw them just fly by Leeds’ high press and get straight the defence.
Bielsa needed to avoid that a second time and didn’t exactly have a budget to go buy a new defence in January. So adjusted his tactics in a way that would prevent such a thrashing again while still being quintessentially him.
Leeds pressed Manchester United ferociously, for sure, Kalvin Phillips spent the whole game shadowing (and kicking) Bruno Fernandes, but they did so in a mid-block. The Leeds forward line dropped back into midfield and compressed the space United would have to both pass and run into; this in turn stifled an already stodgy United attack and reduces The Red Devils to looking for long balls over the top.
3. “My task was Bruno”
Bruno Fernandes has been one of, if not the singular, best and most effective player in the Premier League since he signed for Manchester United at the start of 2020. But today you wouldn’t have known that as the Portuguese was pocketed by Kalvin Phillips.
Marcelo Bielsa is famed for his adherence to man-marking, and he used Phillips’ defensive excellence to great effect to stifle United’s major source of creativity in a way that didn’t require him to alter his entire defensive shape.
When asked about his man-marking job; Phillips said: “We do it all game to be fair, we have different markers every game. My task was Bruno. So, I tried to keep him quiet and luckily he didn’t pop up with a goal,” before adding, in an incredible bit of understatement; “so, y’know, my job was alright.”
Kalvin Phillips for Leeds United vs. Manchester United:
◉ Most recoveries (13)
◉ Most duels won (11)
◉ Most tackles made (8)
◉ Most successful long balls (6)
◉ Most fouls conceded (4)
◉ Most chances created (3)
The Yorkshire Pirlo-Gattuso-Seedorf all in one. 😉 pic.twitter.com/Y7MamAhkOz
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 25, 2021
Phillips’ job was more than alright. The Englishman registered a game-high 8 tackles and won possession for Leeds a stunning 13 times. He was the most dominant force in the game and it was through him that Man Utd were silenced. ,
Paul Ince was watching the match in the Sky Sports studio and was very impressed by Phillips, saying: “I’ve looked at a lot of English midfield players this year and no one’s impressed me more than Kalvin Phillips,” before adding: “playing in that position myself, he’s got all of the attributes you want to have to be a top, top, world-class midfield player.”
Ince concluded: “He looked disinterested, Fernandes, only because the presence that Phillips put on top of him. You have to be disciplined in doing that. Sometimes, you have to forsake your own performance to snuff him out.” And what was extra impressive was that Phillips didn’t forsake his own performance, playing more long balls and creating more chances than any of his team-mates.
Phillips then even showed his support for the proposed social media blackout in protest of racial abuse that players suffer on social media. “I think it’s good, if it helps catch some people that are sending the online abuse.”
“It’s not part of the game, it’s never been part of the game, so if this campaign can help [end] it then I’m all for it.”
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4. Maguire: the false big man
A “false nine” is a number nine who spends the vast majority of his time doing things other than what you expect a number nine to do. Re-innovated for the modern era by Francesco Totti and then popularised by Leo Messi, the success of false nine has led to many other quirkly players being referred to as “false ~position~” and the latest one of those has to be Harry Maguire: the false big man.
A man as large as Maguire, with a head the size of a dustbin and shoulders like two cinderblocks sitting on top of an extra large fridge of a torso. A man with a prodigious leap and a magnet-like ability to get himself on the end of crosses. This is a man who should be scoring repeatedly from corners, like Steve Bruce or Sergio Ramos.
And yet whenever Maguire gets a chance to head the ball, it is an intense and spellbinding disappointment. He never gets a clean contact, or always seems surprised the ball has come to him which is ridiculous because it always comes to him. United’s corners should be a terrifying prospect for opponents but mostly they’re just a game of “hunt the second ball.”
5. The title is City’s
Manchester City are going to contest the EFL Cup final today looking for their first piece of major silverware of the season but before they have even kicked off, they have all but won the Premier League.
Manchester United’s 0-0 draw left them 10 points back with five games left to play. That is obviously enough time for City to drop enough points to lose, but barely. Moreover with a Europa League semi-final to consider and a tough match against Liverpool coming up there’s not much chance that United’s squad, which relies heavily on a few key men who are starting to show serious signs of fatigue, is not likely to be able to stretch itself to keep the pressure on City.