Manchester United – Leeds United: Reds Unforgiving On The Break (5-1)

Manchester United started strongly and continued to dominate for large parts of the game before turning it into a training exercise. They enjoyed plenty of chances on the break and made sure to punish Leeds United and their strict man-marking.

Tactical analysis and match report by Muhammad Raza.

The opening day for both clubs’ Premier League season saw both managers without some of their best players. This did not stop either side from putting out a quality eleven though. 

United lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation on paper. Mason Greenwood had to take up striker duties in Cavani’s absence and was flanked by Daniel James on the right and Paul Pogba on the left. As expected, new signing Jadon Sancho was only on the bench. Another new signing Raphael Varane announced and presented to the fans in the stadium today.

Leeds were missing a key player in Kalvin Phillips too. They lined up in their regular 4-1-4-1 formation with Koch as the lone defensive midfielder ahead of two left-footed center-backs in Pascal Struijk and Liam Cooper. Up front, Patrick Bamford got the nod as lone striker, looking to follow up on his excellent 2020/21 season.

Leeds press high but United find solutions

Leeds started the game off in typical Leeds fashion, with Bielsa’s trademark man-to-man high press on show. The man-markers would follow the opposition player assigned to them anywhere on the pitch. United found ways to turn this into an advantage for themselves.

Leeds would leave one United center-back, usually Lindelöf, free to receive the ball. Bamford would try to close him down if he tried carrying the ball, but the United center-backs still had some room to work with and were the key to bypassing Leed’s press.

As a center-back would carry the ball forward, a United forward, usually Bruno or Pogba, would drop deeper. This decoy movement would suck the man-marking them in, leaving room for a timely third man run A passing combination between two players, while a third player simultaneously makes a run, usually in behind the opponent’s defensive line. After the initial combination, the ball is quickly played in depth for the third player to run onto. which in this example McTominay makes. A flick from the second man would often help the ball make its way to the third man, and this is how United would progress the ball into valuable areas and get a shot away.

An example of the third man run United used to bypass Leed’s man-to-man press.

However, Leeds still had enough bodies behind the ball in these situations, and on the most part, they dealt with it well. It was far from the biggest threat they would go on to face in this game.

United’s high press on Leeds’s goalkicks

United employed a man-to-man high press on Leed’s goal-kicks. They would have James step up to mark Cooper as Greenwood shifted across to mark Struijk, and as a result, their defensive formation would look more like a 3-4-1-2 against Leeds’s 4-1-4-1 attacking shape.

Leeds struggle to find a way out of United’s high press.

United blocked off all the easy options for Meslier on the ball and wanted to force him into a risky or hopeful pass. They wanted Leeds to either use their fullbacks in buildup so that they could trap them on the touchline or go long and win the first and / or second balls. Leeds went for the long balls, usually directed at Harrison by Meslier, and could seldom win the aerial duel in the United half. 

This would end up with United regaining possession, and as soon as that happened, they would try to progress it quickly back up the pitch. One such instance was for United’s first goal coming in the 30th minute of the game. Lindelöf won the first ball meant for Harrison. United quickly progressed it up the pitch to Pogba, who produced a beautiful first-time chipped ball to Bruno. He did the pass justice and scored with a nice finish.

Leeds could not respond, and the sides went into the dressing rooms with United leading at half-time, being the better team, outshooting Leeds eleven to five.

Leeds with a promising start to the second half but soon collapse

Leeds made a change at half-time. They subbed the new man Firpo on for Rodrigo as Dallas went into midfield. They had a good seven-minute spell going into the second half, arguably their best of the match, and were rewarded with a fantastic strike from Ayling. After equalizing, they kept knocking on the door and put pressure on United.. Unfortunately for them – and this seemed to be the theme throughout the game – they could not produce the final pass or the finish on most occasions. Whereas attacking in numbers against a team with Pogba, Bruno and Greenwood in transition will always be dangerous. 

Indeed, a United goal on the break in the 52nd minute ended this quality spell from Leeds. A mouth-watering pass from Pogba and a fitting finish from Greenwood saw Leeds undone a second time in the game. After this second goal and being in the lead again, United adopted a 4-2-3-1 medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. and would only ever press Leeds on the touchline, mainly concerned with blocking off passing lanes and options on the ball for the Leeds center-backs.

United’s 4-2-3-1 mid-block against a trailing Leeds side.

Leeds, perhaps in a bid to get back into the game, lost their composure. Coupled with United’s impressive defensive structure, this meant that Leeds would often lose the ball trying to play into one of their forward players. Not many forward passes would come off for them, and this only provided United with more and more opportunities to punish them on the break. Two of United’s next three goals came in this manner, with the other coming as a result of a brilliant Bruno run being found by an equally brilliant Lindelöf ball who was afforded way too much space again.

These three goals came in the space of fifteen minutes which put the game to bed. Both sides did not look like scoring too many more goals outside of one Raphinha chance, which he could not make the most out of, a very disappointing game all in all for him. The most interesting thing to happen in the remaining minutes was the long-awaited introduction of star signing Jadon Sancho, who showed glimpses of what he can do for the club in the coming years in the few touches he got.

The game ended soon after with Manchester United taking the three points on the day. A very encouraging start for a very exciting side who with their new faces is probably only going to get better.


Manchester United wholeheartedly deserved three points here. Paul Pogba may finally have found a position and a role that can get the best out of him. Lindelöf looks more than up for competing for his place with Varane and can serve as a different, better ball-playing option for certain games. Greenwood, on this day at least, looks like a real option as a number nine, which can be particularly useful if Martial leaves this summer.United may also have found a system they can stick with for most games. Adding Sancho and Cavani into the mix for Greenwood and James is also only going to make them better. Questions remain about whether they can break defensive teams down week-in-week-out. 

Leeds fans probably should not read into this result too much. The first game of the new season against a really good United side more or less built to play against Leeds was always going to be tough. They can be expected to regain their rhythm soon and keep mesmerizing us with their brilliant brand of football as they look to be a mainstay in the Premier League again.

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