War of the Roses Pt.2 – Manchester United emerge victorious

At the 70 minute mark, both Leeds and Manchester United many have taken a point if you had offered it to them. The game was far too stop-start in nature to get going, and neither set of players were clicking. 

Unsurprisingly for the Red Devils, the loss of Christian Eriksen to injury and Casemiro to suspension scuppered the midfield. Fred and new-signing Marcel Sabitzer provided the anchorage in front of an unfamiliar back four of Diogo Dalot, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw (slotting into centre-back for the fourth time this season) and Tyrell Malacia. Ahead of the midfield, Bruno Fernandes offered support to Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and focal-point Wout Weghorst.

Luke Shaw & Harry Maguire – a viable centre-back partnership?

When asked about these unfamiliar defensive decisions, manager Erik Ten Hag stated, “They [Shaw and Maguire] know each other, they also know the game and the rivalry between Leeds and Manchester United. They have to project it on the whole team. I expect leadership from them today, definitely.

Erik Ten Hag discusses his tactical choices at Elland Road. (Photo by MUFC)

“Rotation is one part of it. They’ve had a lot of games to cover – with the World Cup and now already back and a lot of games coming after each other and a lot of games ahead as well. The other part is also tactics.”

Eight games in four weeks

Squad rotation, it seems, is at the forefront of the manager’s mind – over the next four weeks, United will play eight important games, including trips to Barcelona, Liverpool and Wembley for the League Cup final vs. buoyant Newcastle United. 

Rashford scores his 21st goal of the season – a crucial 80th-minute header – to give United the lead. (Photo by Sports Illustrated)

As the game wore on, United’s class shone through. Hitman Marcus Rashford latched onto a sumptuous ball from Luke Shaw to score his second header in as many games, before Alejandro Garnacho rounded off the scoring with a skilful dribble and calm, devastating near post finish past the impressive Islan Meslier.

Rashford cannot stop scoring. He has 13 goals and 5 assists since the resumption of the Premier League after the World Cup. That is world class form. If he continues this blistering form between now and May, he will end up with over 40 goal involvements in all competitions. Even more importantly, United will have been able to rely on Rashford’s exploits for the majority of the season, something which has not always been the case.

Weghorst – a mixed start to life in Manchester

Wout Weghorst on the other hand is becoming a polarised figure already at United. After a poor hour or so on Wednesday’s reverse fixture, there were several murmurs of discontent heard from the crowd. Indeed, United seemed a much better side without him. It was unclear whether he would start the game at Elland Road – he played the entire 90 minutes.

The lanky Dutchman did impress with some link-up play, including threading Garnacho through to exploit the tiring Leeds defence for United’s second. His one standout performance came against Championship side Reading in FA Cup. Only time will tell whether this is his ceiling as a player.

A look ahead to a crucial period

United were without several key figures and still walked away from a hostile Elland Road with three points. Neither Varane not Martinez, arguably United’s first choice defensive partnership started the game. They would both shoo-ins to start on Thursday vs. Barcelona, alongside Casemiro whose one remaining match suspension will be served domestically. However, Martinez’s suspension hints that Shaw’s position against Leeds may be replicated at the Nou Camp. Aside from the tests being passed on the pitch, Ten Hag is showing excellent squad management. 

Luke Shaw excelled at centre-back before finishing the game at left-back – he provided the cross for Rashford’s opening goal. (Photo by Fancast)

His side are now averaging two points per game in the league, form which will see them sail into the European places. This means United are on track for 76 points. Not since 2013/14 has 76 points not been enough for a top four spot. In a year already predicted by some to be a ‘low-points’ league year, Ten Hag has given himself every opportunity to achieve Champions League football at the first time of asking.

Looking at the table, United are seven points clear of fifth. With Arsenal and Manchester City locking horns twice before the end of the season, Ten Hag’s could still find themselves mounting an unlikely and extremely premature title challenge come springtime.

Author: Sam Talbot

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