Perhaps, when we think about some of the great Marcelo Bielsa teams, this was the sort of thing we had in mind. Feverish attacking football played at a breakneck pace, with courage and verve and runners peeling in all directions. Players seamlessly switching positions and assuming each other’s roles. The problem for Leeds United was that for most of the game they were on the receiving end.
Not that you would have known it to look at them. Normally you get some sense of how a game is going from the demeanour and tactics of the two teams: the hunched shoulders and crumpled body language, the nonchalant rondos, the vague sense of deflation. But for most of this breathless farce, the only dead giveaway was the rapidly mounting scoreboard in the corner of the screen.
Leeds play like a team who have never seen a scoreboard in their lives.
They attacked when it was 0-0. They attacked when it was 2-0 after three minutes. They were still attacking deep into injury time when they were 6-2 down and it could scarcely matter less. On some level, you assume they must grasp the concept of results, of wins and draws and points, of basic counting. But until the final whistle blows, you just have to take it on trust.
Equally, Leeds’s commitment to total entertainment this season has often come as much at their own expense as at their opponents’. Doubtless there will be those who grouse and grimace at the tributes being paid to a Bielsa team who now sit below Newcastle in the table, boast the division’s worst defence and here were handed their third solid spanking of the season.
The truth is none of this should really surprise us. Ever since their promotion was confirmed, this was how we always knew Leeds would play and – for the most part – how we always knew it would turn out. Often transcendent, often hopeless, and very occasionally making Scott McTominay look like Eusébio.
McTominay was the chief beneficiary of the early chaos, a weird and yet entirely foreseeable passage of play in which Manchester United seemed to have playmakers all over the pitch, not all of them dressed in red. For those first few minutes, the hosts were in swarm mode, stealing Leeds’s clothes and stealing the ball. Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw morphed into ball-winning midfielders; Anthony Martial into a roving No 10, McTominay into a goal‑poaching centre-forward, putting them 2-0 ahead with two sumptuous finishes from long and close range.
To wonder what Leeds were doing while all this was unfolding is largely to miss the point. This is a team stretched paper-thin across the pitch, a system without contingencies, where even to admit the possibility that you might lose the ball in a dangerous position is its own form of surrender.
Instead, they simply ploughed on, creating and more often succumbing.
It was around the time Bruno Fernandes made it 3-0 that you realised that Leeds had walked into an ambush. An open game defined by chaos, broken play, quick exchanges, huge spaces, football played on instinct and adrenalin and glue fumes: this is exactly how Manchester United like it.
Perhaps it should not have surprised us that a match that came down to individual tussles – Aaron Wan-Bissaka v Raphinha, Fred v Rodrigo, Martial v Luke Ayling – was ultimately stormed by the team with the better individuals. The question for Leeds, I suppose, is when your meticulously choreographed chaos looks a lot like the other team’s laissez-faire, facking-run-about-a-bit chaos, then what was the point in the first place?
Curiously, as the goals continued to rain in – Victor Lindelöf , Daniel James, Fernandes again – I actually ended up with a greater admiration for Leeds at the end of the game than I had at the start. Success is success.
Winning is winning. But let’s not chuck out all semblance of context here.
Let’s look at that Leeds back four: Stuart Dallas, Ayling, Liam Cooper, Ezgjan Alioski, signed from Brentford, Bristol City, Chesterfield and Lugano for a combined total of £5.4m. Now let’s see who they were up against: Rashford, Martial, Cavani, Fernandes. Let’s face it: these players should barely exist in the same sport, let alone the same game. And yet for 90 minutes we indulge the illusion that they are equals, and every so often they comply.
Here, though, the sight of Leeds being carved open by these brilliant footballers somehow seemed to encapsulate the heroic futility of their mission. This is a team whose only strategy involves willingly opening themselves up to the world’s greatest attacking players, in the hope that somehow you’ll create enough chances for Patrick Bamford at the other end to make up for it. It feels like a form of doomed madness, and the miracle isn’t that they try. The miracle is that it ever works.