Leeds didn’t have quite enough of a new manager bounce, while Manchester United had cause to regret the sudden absence of their central midfield.
In the end, Leeds United couldn’t quite get their new manager bounce to fly high enough.
Michael Skublala, Paco Gallardo and Chris Armas won’t be familiar names to many people outside West Yorkshire, but as a three-man team – with Skubala taking the ‘formal’ manager’s position and dealing with the media work – they took on one of the Premier League’s form teams and gave them one of the most difficult games they’ll face all season, and all against the backdrop of a rivalry which transcends mere football and reaches back to hundreds of years of English history.
It took less than a minute for Leeds United to shake off those Jesse Marsch blues at Old Trafford, though they did require a little helping hand from their opponents. Bruno Fernandes, playing in a slightly unfamiliar position on the right-hand side of midfield, had the ball nicked off him by Pascal Struijk, and with the Manchester United defence still trying to organise its shape, Wilfried Gnonto shot into the bottom corner to quieten a home crowd that had been full of voice just a couple of minutes earlier.
Manchester United’s performance for much of the first half demonstrated that even the most confident of teams can struggle to find their way when important constituent parts are stripped away. Casemiro was missing suspended and Christian Eriksen will be out for most of the rest of this season, and when you take a successful pair of players like this out of any team, it will start to look a little ragged around the edges.
Fred seemed pushed too high, as though he wasn’t completely sure of where he should be playing. Marcel Sabitzer didn’t – understandably, since he only joined them eight days ago – seem fully aware of the positioning of the players around him.
Wout Weghorst had scored his first Manchester United a couple of weeks earlier but didn’t look like the sort of hero that the club’s supporters need their centre-forward to be and was largely redundant while, as for Alejandro Garnacho, perhaps the kindest thing to say about his performance would be not to say anything at all.
And by contrast, Leeds roared throughout those opening stages. Barely ten minutes after the goal, Struijk was at it again, this time with a header that David De Gea had to tip away. You absolutely would not have guessed that the team in the red was that which had won their previous 13 consecutive home matches while the team in white was that which had sacked its manager just a couple of days earlier.
It was hardly as though Manchester United could say that they were unlucky, either. Leeds may have scored early, but they kept pushing forward, and if there was bad luck in abundance at Old Trafford throughout the first half, that was mostly seen in injuries to Luis Sinisterra after just eight minutes and to Struijk at about the midway point.
These plus further injuries to other Leeds players resulted in a Doha-esque eight minutes of stoppage-time being added at the end of the first half, but the closest that either team came to a goal was a penalty shout for Leeds that was waved away.
Somewhat surprisingly, Erik ten Hag didn’t make any changes at half-time, and two minutes into the second half he may have had cause to regret that decision.
Garnacho clumsily lost possession to Gnonto, who fed the ball to Crysencio Summerville and his low shot across the penalty area was deflected in off Raphael Varane to double the Leeds advantage.
Just before the hour came, Jadon Sancho brushed off his cobwebs for his second appearance since October and came on for Weghorst, who’d been playing like Andy Carroll with go faster stripes, while Garnacho, whose evening was reminiscent of the sort of evenings that Manchester United players had around about this time last year, was replaced by debutant Facundo Pellistri.
The results were almost immediate. Pellistri had barely been on the pitch when his pass found Diogo Dalot on the right, and Dalot’s cross was headed in by Marcus Rashford to pull a goal back for Manchester United.
Sancho has had a rotten time of things this last season and a half, and three months out with injury have been another setback for a player whose enormous transfer from Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2021 hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. He shot across the goal from Luke Shaw’s deflected pullback to bring the scores level at 2-2.
The volume inside Old Trafford rose enormously. Finally, more than an hour late, a little bit of that big club swagger had returned to Manchester United, but on this occasion, they didn’t quite have enough of it to secure a win.
They had chances, for sure. Illan Meslier made a couple of decent saves and there is little question that Leeds were holding on quite a bit throughout those last 20 minutes, but even the urgency of Old Trafford under the floodlights with Manchester United chasing a goal couldn’t quite get the home side over the line.
It was a mixed night for both (or, if you prefer, all four) managers. Erik ten Hag had a pretty disastrous hour.
His initial formation without Casemiro or Eriksen looked muddled, but he made changes and they bore immediate fruit. This wasn’t a good night for Manchester United. Though there is satisfaction to be taken from coming from two goals down to salvage a draw in a match with the emotional pull of this one, the fact remains that Leeds are fourth from bottom in the Premier League.
Talk has tentatively started over the last couple of weeks that Manchester United could yet pull off a Premier League title win this season, should Arsenal falter. They’ll have to play better than they did for the first two-thirds of this game if that’s to become more than idle speculation, and they’ll have to do so for the next two games Casemiro and for the next three months without Christian Eriksen.
Erik ten Hag played an absolute blinder with his substitutions, but that doesn’t obscure the fact that these substitutions primarily came about because his team hadn’t played particularly well for the first hour of this game. Perhaps Jadon Sancho will come back in, rendering Wout Weghorst a failed experiment. The midfield certainly shouldn’t look as discombobulated as it did for much of this match.
And yet again, we’re left to wonder about the mysterious phenomenon that is ‘new manager bounce’. There are many explanations for why this may happen after a manager is sacked, and it should go without saying that Leeds players shouldn’t need geeing up for a match against Manchester United.
But while there is something fundamentally perverse about a team that is hovering just above the relegation places perhaps feeling a little disappointed at having ‘only’ taken a point from a trip to Old Trafford, if anything it might even be considered a reflection upon how well they played for that first hour.
Still, they get another chance in their very next match. The postponement of this fixture positioned this one just four days before the return match at Elland Road.
If Leeds can play as they did for the first hour of this game, they’ll fancy their chances, rather less so if Manchester United play in the way that they did for the final thirty. This instalment of The War of the Roses may have ended in stalemate, but no one will have to wait very long for the next one.