The rivalry between these two old enemies is supposedly as intense as ever, though it would be impossible to use that word to describe the actual football. If Manchester United went into this game wondering what it would be like to resume league hostilities after 16 years, they came out of it wishing they could play Leeds United every week. It was an almost perfect afternoon for the home side, apart from two-goal hero Scott McTominay pulling up with a groin strain near the end.
While Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side are up to third after an unexpectedly comfortable win – the generosity of the Leeds defence helping boost their goal difference beyond that of Everton – for Manchester United to be riding so high with defensive issues of their own does not say a great deal about standards this season.
The big surprise on the home teamsheet was the inclusion of Dan James at wide right, with Paul Pogba left on the bench as the Manchester United manager reverted to his preferred midfield of Fred, McTominay and Bruno Fernandes. Literally within seconds of kick-off the even bigger surprise was that the home side had rediscovered the knack of taking an early lead. After waiting so long for one of their most eagerly anticipated fixtures Leeds rather let themselves down by conceding twice in the first three minutes. True, they might not have been expecting mild-mannered midfielder McTominay to repackage himself as a goal threat – no one else was either – but given the amount of space the Scot found in the opening minutes almost anyone would have made Leeds pay.
After 67 second Fernandes was merely weighing up his options on the edge of the area when McTominay arrived at his shoulder and the Leeds defence obligingly parted. All he had to do once Fernandes had rolled the ball in his direction was keep his shot low and on target, but he packed in a certain amount of power as well to leave Illan Meslier little chance. That was already the sort of start United have rarely been able to manage this season, yet a minute later they had doubled their lead, with McTominay running past Anthony Martial into space behind a statuesque Leeds back line to strike once again.
Unless Leeds could hit back quickly the contest looked to be over before it had properly begun, but Patrick Bamford put his shot wide with the first decent chance that came his way. Then he was rightly flagged for offside when picking up a rebound and shooting on the turn past David De Gea. The home side heeded the warning. By the time Bamford headed over the bar on 25 minutes with an opportunity he should perhaps have made more of, Fernandes had stretched his side’s lead to three. The Portugal international was involved in the move twice, first back-heeling to Fred to set an attack in motion after Leeds had lost possession on half way, then moving up to supply a finish after Martial found his way blocked in the area.
In 20 minutes Manchester United had claimed as many goals as they had managed in all the league games at Old Trafford this season put together, and there was still time for another before the interval.
Martial met a corner with a near-post header and Leeds allowed Victor Lindelöf time and space to react with a sidefoot volley. It was all looking ridiculously easy, though at least Leeds managed to pull one back when Liam Cooper exposed the indecisiveness in the centre of the home defence by rising to meet Raphinha’s corner and plant a firm header past David de Gea.
Delighted as Solskjær must have been by four first-half goals – officially the worst start Leeds have ever made in a Premier League game – neither manager could have been happy with the defending. Leeds made two rearguard changes at the interval but still failed to pick up Fernandes at the start of the second half, and from his pass Martial looked to have put himself in a position to score with ease, only to miss the target. In keeping with the madcap nature of the proceedings, Leeds came down the field and nearly scored next, Raphinha producing a superb reaction save from De Gea with a far-post volley.
De Gea saved well again from Raphinha before the home side extended their lead, James fastening on to a crossfield pass from McTominay and running on practically unopposed to beat Meslier. Pascal Struijk tripped Martial to allow Fernandes to score from the penalty spot before Stuart Dallas rescued a shred of dignity for the visitors, shooting accurately from distance when invited to do so by a defence slow to close him down.
It could have been worse for Leeds, as Meslier kept out goalbound efforts from Edinson Cavani, Alex Telles and Fred in the last few minutes. But 6-2 is bad enough against your arch rivals, if that is what these two still are. Unless Leeds can make some rapid improvements in defensive organisation there is no guarantee this fixture is going to resume its status as an annual event.