Everything that you need to know ahead of Sunday’s match:
(1) Manchester United host Leeds United this weekend in what promises to be an end-to-end, exhausting contest. The Yorkshire club spent sixteen years in the wilderness after relegation from the Premier League in 2004, but new ownership and the shock appointment of Marcelo Bielsa steered them back into the top-flight.
(2) The form table makes for some fun reading:
Since the 6-1 defeat to Tottenham, Manchester United have picked up the most points in the Premier League.— UtdArena (@utdarena) December 17, 2020
A solid recovery after a bad start to the season. pic.twitter.com/70KOfBBoLN
(3) In theory, Manchester United match up pretty well with this Leeds side. The Reds won’t have much time on the ball due to Leeds’ ferocious press, but if they can win man-to-man battles across the pitch — and United hold the edge in raw talent at almost every position — there will be plenty of space to attack on the counter. If Manchester United keep their composure and commit to ninety minutes of lung-busting running, it should be a good day.
(4) The team selection at lowly Sheffield United was surely made with one eye on this weekend. Manchester United will need the fresh legs of Fred and Scott McTominay in order to contend with the all-action Leeds engine room. One quibble with Josh’s tweet — based on recent form, Paul Pogba deserves game time over Van de Beek.
Pretty sure Fred, McTominay and Van de Beek being saved for Leeds #MUFC— Josh Wright (@_WrightJosh) December 17, 2020
(5) Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Manchester United’s mediocre record at Old Trafford:
We need to sort the home form. Obviously, it’s not like it’s home and away in these conditions without fans and it seems like we’re going to be in this situation a little longer, but we should be more used to the Old Trafford pitch than these pitches, so hopefully we’ll start. [Sunday] is a massive game for us, we know that. We’ve been waiting for years to get this game on and we’ll be ready for it.
(6) Marcelo Bielsa: genius or madman? This is the guy who quit Lazio after two days(!) because of board interference, but who also earns unending praise from the likes of Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, and Diego Simeone. Bielsa was at his “El Loco” best last week, choosing to reveal his starting lineup two days before the match against West Ham. In a world where most coaches guard that information like state secrets, the Leeds boss laid all his cards on the table. It’s not hard to see why he’s a bit of a cult figure.
(7) Clubs fight over the chance to sign the eccentric Bielsa, though, because he delivers results. At Leeds, he brought his trademark high-octane style to English football and restored the Yorkshire club to the Premier League. The Bielsa way is a high-risk, high-reward system full of positional interchanges, quick passes, and extremely aggressive pressing — especially in the middle of the pitch where Kalvin Phillips dominates.
(8) A typical Leeds possession begins with goalkeeper Illan Meslier playing the ball out from the back — no matter how high and hard the opposition presses — to Phillips in his holding role by way of defenders Liam Cooper or Luke Ayling. The Whites then ping it around, opening up space with quick, probing passes. Ideally, the ball ends up out wide for Jack Harrison or Helder Costa to cross into the box for Patrick Bamford or onrushing attacking midfielders. It’s an effective system — Leeds rank second in the Premier League with 1.82 xG per 90 minutes.
(9) Up until this season, Patrick Bamford was known more for his movement than his finishing. In fact, his profligacy in front of goal seemed to be the only thing holding him back from stardom. Now, back in the top-flight, Bamford is proving the doubters wrong with nine goals already scored before Christmas. Bielsa took a lot of the pressure off his 27-year-old frontman this summer with moves for Rodrigo (£27 million from Valencia) and Raphinha (£17 million from Rennes) and it appears to be paying off with a more focused and determined Bamford.
(10) After back-to-back losses to kick off December, Leeds righted the ship with an emphatic 5-2 win over Newcastle on Wednesday. Bamford — who else? — opened the scoring for Leeds, before second-half goals from Rodrigo, Stuart Dallas, Gjanni Alioski, and Jack Harrison killed off the Toon for good. Key stat from the match: Kalvin Phillips won the ball back eleven times within five seconds of applying pressure on a Newcastle player.
(11) Leeds’ defensive problems begin and end with set pieces. They’ve already allowed eight goals from dead ball situations this season, a massive vulnerability that top teams will mercilessly exploit. It’s not easy to pinpoint the exact problem — a lack of height and Bielsa’s man-marking system both seem likely explanations — and, considering that Newcastle scored from a corner on Wednesday, there’s no quick and easy solution.