It’s galling to spend all week – let alone 16 years – waiting for a Premier League fixture against the old foe. We might cling onto a 2010 cup victory more than is healthy, choosing to ignore the 3-0 drubbing we got the following year. But for a league fixture you need to go back to 2003 for our last game, or 2002 for our last win. Or 1981 for the last league game where we won at Old Trafford. But a lot has changed and heading into the game there was this belief that a Bielsa-coached Leeds could shock anyone.
Within the first 3 minutes we were 2-0 down. Scott McTominay had become prime Zidane and scored with the first two chances of the game. The punishment continued and continued as Leeds’ wayward passing and desire to be on the front foot at all times left us horribly exposed. The fine margins of the Premier League combined with a make-shift defence meant that if the danger wasn’t totally at the Man Utd end, Leeds were going to concede. And concede we did. Six times.
This has made lazy journalists question whether this approach is “naive” to the extent that it signals our inevitable relegation. The answer to that question is a resounding “no”.
I said it on Twitter following the game:
We'll have games like today with this squad in this system. We'll also have games like City, Villa, Everton and Newcastle.
Of course I'm devastated it was against that lot, but we'll be fine.
— I Hate Leeds (@ihatelufc) December 20, 2020
It’s easy to forget that this is primarily the squad that we had in the Championship, which even at that level was perceived to be performing at the very peak of the individual limits of the players. When the additions of Llorente and Koch are injured, we’re trying to man-mark individuals worth more than our entire squad. Harry Maguire cost £80m, whereas Liam Cooper (our only fielded centre-back) was purchased for around £500-750k.
The outpouring of support for our desire to attack at all costs has been nice to see, but in reality that’s our identity and it feels more likely that we’d fall on that particular sword than revert to some George Graham “10 defenders and a striker” football. But I firmly believe in what I tweeted above – this system will fail catastrophically occasionally because of the limited quality in the squad. In theory, better players in this man-for-man system would reduce the number of times that we get turned over and punished. But it’s still a riskier tactic that is far more likely to create volatile form.
Essentially, a system that drags out narrow victories also suffers narrow defeats – as the goal is being defensively resolute – but fundamentally it’s dull. It’s unfortunately something endemic of this Premier League era as the money attached to the division is so vast that clubs will manage risk extensively, refusing to be bold, brave and lose. Everyone concentrates so hard no not losing that the football becomes dull.
Leeds are not that side. It wouldn’t matter if we were 10-0 down or 10-0 up, we’d be playing the same way and trying to win the game. We should not change our approach. We won’t get relegated doing this. We’ll lose – absolutely. We’ll lose massively sometimes. We’ll also win games and win some hearts along the way.