It was an occasion that would have suited David Attenborough far more than Martin Tyler. From the opening shrill of Anthony Taylor’s whistle, the predator stalked its prey with a ruthless ferocity not seen for some time in its natural habitat.
‘This…is a man-marking system with an intense press,’ he would begin in his iconic voice, complete with trademark pause for effect. ‘A dangerous beast, it relies on speed and power to hunt in packs and overwhelm any target.’
The dramatic music starts to build, along with the tension of what is to come next.
‘But this animal so often lacks one key facet that can make it incredibly vulnerable: a semblance of basic defensive instinct.’
Within seconds of kick-off, before any of the eight goals at Old Trafford, Manchester United swarmed Leeds. They launched into tackles, gave them no time on the ball and subjected them to the sort of deer-in-headlights terror that Marcelo Bielsa prides himself on establishing.
Watch it again if you get the chance: Patrick Bamford plays the ball to Mateusz Klich, who finds Raphinha. In an instant he is tackled by Fred and Scott McTominay has possession. The tone is set.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suggested before the game that he might have to “bring a balloon to pop right in front of them” to coax a start from his players, who had contrived to fall behind in five of their previous six matches while developing a pathological need to Always Make Things Hard For Ourselves™. Going by their opening three minutes, the explosion in the dressing room was approaching Mike Phelan scaring the bejeezus out of Sir Alex Ferguson in the dugout levels of awakening.
It was a sight to behold. The first goal came eight seconds after Raphinha was tackled by Luke Shaw on the left wing, Marcus Rashford retaining possession and combining with Bruno Fernandes to assist McTominay’s belting strike. Less than two minutes later, a Shaw throw-in reached Martial who waited long enough to find McTominay’s incisive run into the area. His controlling touch was as sublime as the finish that followed.
Leeds were shellshocked. Manchester United were irrepressible. They had their third when Fernandes shot through the legs of Luke Ayling, ten seconds after Rodrigo’s poor pass under pressure from Fred was intercepted by Daniel James.
These were individual errors, granted, but entirely forced, like a beleaguered journeyman sent sprinting across the court for every single point by Roger Federer as he barely seems to break a sweat.
It’s these performances that make many of the others so frustrating. Manchester United have a group of players eminently capable of this, bending teams to their will by the sheer weight of their attacking brilliance. The defensive issues remain – as the two conceded goals attest – but those forwards are the envy of most of the continent.
Behind them, McTominay, Fred and Shaw were especially good, partaking in more pulsating breaks than Ronnie O’Sullivan at his peak. Only poor finishing from Anthony Martial and supreme goalkeeping from Illan Meslier kept them from genuinely threatening double figures.
Solskjaer was the architect, selecting James in perhaps the only game perfect for him to start in the entire calendar, with each of his substitutions timed well enough to capitalise on the momentum when necessary and offer rests to those rarely afforded one. It was far from perfect and Leeds exploited areas of weakness for large portions of the match but Liverpool literally beat someone 7-0 on Saturday despite being pretty much even for the entirety of the first half and, by their captain’s own admission, “sloppy”.
This season is stupid and so are we for trying to make sense of any of it. Manchester United take that sentiment to new extremes each week, yet are now up to third with a game in hand, unbeaten in seven and visitors to one of the only two teams above them currently on Boxing Day. With their away form and Leicester’s troubles at home that is starting to look like an ideal Christmas gift.
Leicester will likely not be as accommodating as Leeds were here, torn asunder in the sort of animalistic display that showcased their best and worst traits. But Manchester United, for all their ludicrousness, have long had the firepower good enough to declare themselves distant second-best to Liverpool, which is far more of a compliment than it sounds. In this baffling campaign, they might have the teammates, manager and consistency necessary for that claim too.