Another defensive master-class as Leeds and Man U play out a stalemate
Sunday, 25th Apr 2021 23:19 by Tim Whelan
It wasn’t the best of games, but this was a big improvement on our result against Manchester United earlier in the season. And we’ve now drawn at home with five of the self-proclamed ‘super league’ teams, with Spurs still to come.
Marcello Bielsa named an unchanged starting line-up for the second game running, with Raphinha still out injured. If the title race had been closer Man City could have reflected on how unwise it was to nobble our best player shortly before we were due to play their rivals. Man U’s only change was to rest Pogba and select Daniel James, the player who so nearly joined us two years ago.
We made quite a cautious start to the game, with none of the gung-ho approach of the game at Old Trafford earlier in the season. But that was when we had a makeshift defence with Ayling out of position in the centre in the absence of our regulars in that position. We’ve got a far more solid look these days, with the emergence of Struijk and Llorente’s return from injury.
There was an early scare when a long ball through the middle found Rashford, but his first touch took him quite wide and his finish was surprisingly feeble, dragging the ball well wide of the far post. In any case he was borderline offside, so VAR would have had a good look at it if he had managed to put the ball in the net.
After that we began to grow into the game, and we had a quite optimistic shout for a penalty when a cross from Harrison went behind Bamford and hit Shaw on the arm. VAR had a look at it but there was nothing doing, despite our appeals. It would have been very harsh as Shaw’s arm was by his side as the ball hit it, and he didn’t have much time to move it out of the way.
Apart from that, our best chance of the half came when Man U failed to clear the ball from their own throw-in deep in their half. Phillips won the ball after closing Fernandez down on the edge of the box, then slipped it to Dallas, but disappointingly the Ulsterman’s shot was straight at Henderson. He really needed to curl it into the far corner.
Man U’s best opportunities came from free kicks. The first came when Phillips unwisely went through the back of Fernandes out of frustration at no foul being given when he was pushed over by McTominay a minute earlier. That gave them a free kick in a dangerous position, which Fernandes got up to take himself, but could only send over the bar.
He wasn’t entrusted with their next effort, which Rashford took from a little further out. I was a bit concerned that Meslier was a bit to the left of his goal rather than in the centre, when Rashford had space to get the ball over the wall and down again. Rashford duly did just that, but failed to put it in the far corner where Meslier wouldn’t have got to it, so allowed our young custodian to reach across and make a fine save.
Shortly before the break our old weakness at set pieces was evident as Maguire was left unmarked at a corner, but thankfully 50p head could only send it over the bar. We might have expected the game to improve after the break, but it continued in much the same fashion. Man U were frustrated by our man-to-man marking tactics and in the absence of Raphinha we were short of that bit of quality that might have swung the game in our favour.
The visitors did go close soon after the break when Wan-Bissaka got the best of Costa’s attempt at a challenge on the right and pulled it back for Fernandes, but the Portuguese midfielder could only drag his shot wide of the post. And on the hour we went close at the other end when an excellent cross-field ball from Phillips set Costa free, and when Wan-Bissaka blocked his shot the ball spun up in the air, but dropped onto the roof of the net rather than under the bar.
Harrison had been quiet for much of the game, and in the 68th minute Bielsa replaced him with Poveda to try to liven things up a bit. But a few minutes later he must have wished he’d kept him on, when Costa went down and had to be replaced by Klich, as we started to run out of wingers, despite having so many in the squad.
It wasn’t long before a chance fell to Klich after Bamford had played him down the right, but he cut inside and couldn’t get any power with his weaker left foot, with Henderson able to save quite comfortably. Wide right isn’t familiar territory for Klich, so we probably needed to have Dallas out there instead.
In the final quarter of an hour Solskjaer sent on first Pogba and then Cavani, in an effort to snatch the win, while Bielsa countered by sending Koch on for Roberts. That seemed a very negative move, and with the last substitute used he would have had no options to chase the game if we’d fallen behind.
But we didn’t concede, despite the array of expensive attacking talent Man U were able to introduce, with Struijk and Llorente being immense in the heart of our defence right till the end. And that came twenty seconds before the end of the four minutes injury time that had been announced, with the referee possibly so bored that he wanted to stop the game a little bit early.
So honour was satisfied, and Man U failed to get the win they needed if they were going to stand any chance of catching their noisy neighbours at the top of the table. Perhaps they should have fielded their best side from the start, instead of taking us lightly and saving a couple of players for the Thursday night club.
And apart from our improvement in defence we can celebrate moving up to ninth in the table and extending our unbeaten run against the self-elected ‘super league’ to four games. Who know where we can get to as this side continues to develop.
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