After the maelstrom of Manchester when the sides met in December, this was the calm after the storm. With only one save of note all afternoon, Illan Meslier keeping out a Marcus Rashford free-kick, the neutrals will have found a 0-0 draw at Elland Road far less fun than the 6-2 at Old Trafford, but Bielsa’s Leeds United demonstrated how much they have learnt since that day.
We should not forget the team Manchester United – unbeaten away in this season’s Premier League – exploited before Christmas was packed with players experiencing the division for the first time. Even their well-travelled coach was new to it.
But their last three matches, a 2-1 win over Manchester City, 1-1 draw with Liverpool and this goalless affair, demonstrated how much they have matured since.
You can see why the Premier League’s self-appointed big six would rather they did not have to compete with the likes of Leeds. With Tottenham Hotspur still to come the weekend after next, none have won at Elland Road in 2020-21, and Arsenal, Chelsea and now Manchester United have not even scored against a team made a laughing stock by some, lauded by others, for their refreshing/naive (delete as appropriate) approach at Old Trafford.
This match was a much sleepier, more sedate affair.
Elland Road’s excitable directors box makes it one of the noisiest behind-closed-doors grounds in the country. Yesterday it was more about gestures, adopted Yorkshiremen Victor Orta, Angus Kinnear and Andreas Radrizzani sporting huge white roses. Actually when it came to Yorkshire-born players, the visitors outnumbered Leeds three to one, as well as having both Lancastrians, perhaps explaining why Manchester United’s first Premier League visit to Elland Road in 18 years was no war of the roses.
That battle won – for now – neither did the visitors face the hostility which greeted co-super league conspirators Liverpool arriving at a ground where it usually comes guaranteed for them.
With neither side especially vocal, one angry Harry Maguire outburst at team-mate Fred apart, you could hear the buzz of a plane protesting against the £2bn the Glazers had “stolen” from the Red Devils overhead, and Rashford’s shriek after a Luke Ayling foul.
Leeds could take quiet satisfaction from the peace.
“There’s been a growth in the maturity and the experience to manage these games,” reflected Bielsa at full-time.
“The way to deal with difficult periods in the game has been improving. The capacity for the players to go up against these very good players has also increased.
“The team made a massive effort which allowed the game not to become unbalanced for us.”
With the Red Devils’ orchestrator Bruno Fernandes not at his best, there were few difficult periods for Leeds to deal with.
They largely made their own first-half problems by conceding too many fouls around their box despite Bielsa imploring them not too. For the Leeds of early season, every opposition set piece required a defibrilator on standby but by and large they coped with them comfortably, Mason Greenwood heading an early effort tamely at Meslier, another hitting Maguire and ricocheting wide.
Leeds conceded far fewer in the second half. They are quick learners.
Manchester United were looking for Victor Lindelof to release Rashford with long balls but Leeds largely contained the threat and when he tried to find Maguire in the 29th minute, Patrick Bamford cut out the pass, only for Stuart Dallas to overhit his ball to Jack Harrison.
Counter-attacks down the left looked Leeds’s best opening, Harrison having earlier found space when Aaron Wan-Bissaka was upfield. His cross struck Luke Shaw’s arm, perhaps trailing a fraction behind his body. Handball calls by video assistant referees have become an absolute lottery this season, and Mike Dean did not draw Leeds’s number.
A Kalvin Phillips foul allowed Rashford to end the half with a free-kick Meslier stretched his left hand out to tip over.
Manchester United’s front four were particularly fluid after the restart, but it did not always work to their favour. In the 50th minute left-winger Rashford played the ball from the right, Bradfordian Greenwood dropped into the hole and Fernandes and Hull-born Dan James got in each other’s way trying to play centre-forward.
As against the other Manchester club, Leeds were selective in their counter-attacks but they almost made one count after 55 minutes, Dallas chipping a clever pass to Helder Costa – switched to the left at half-time – but no one got on the end of his low cross.
A good advantage by Craig Pawson with 15 minutes left was not taken by Mateusz Klich, who shot at Dean Henderson.
Leeds matched up their guests’ 4-2-3-1 rather than throw the kitchen sink at them late on.
Their progress bodes well for next season, even if Bielsa was unwilling to say so.
He always tries to be scrupulously fair in his post-match pronouncements, and pointed out Leeds had rarely outplayed the big boys at Elland Road.
“I can’t affirm this,” he replied when asked if he was confident his players could take that step next season. “But it is clear there is a margin for improvement. They have created a base where they can go into every game with a fair optimism.”
The excitement for Leeds yesterday was all about the future.
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