By Raj Chopra.
Manchester United’s all-round performance against RB Leipzig, as they thrashed the Bundesliga side 5-0 in their second Champions League group game, was nothing short of fantastic.
Leipzig came to Old Trafford leading the German Bundesliga and having reached the Champions League semi-finals last season.
Pre-match odds and expectations had United in for a very difficult evening, but as we’ve now come to expect, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side produced the unexpected.
With all the euphoria United fans will be experiencing following this scintillating win, they will still be wondering how they can emulate their excellent Champions league form in the Premier League.
United have been far from convincing in the league, managing only two wins from their first five games. The previous Premier League home game against Chelsea, which finished goalless, left United fans bewildered at the lack of attacking ambition and also wondering what team might turn up to face Leipzig.
Rotating his side, Solskjaer made five changes to the team that drew with Chelsea. Significantly, Donny van de Beek and Paul Pogba were brought into the lineup, with Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford dropping to the bench. Mason Greenwood was given a start up front with Anthony Martial.
Greenwood opened the scoring for United, converting Pogba’s superb through ball. It was a first-class finish, the type we have now come to expect from the talented 19-year-old. That goal also made him the second-youngest scorer for United in the Champions League (Wayne Rooney is the youngest).
However, the scoreline remained 1-0 to United until midway through the second half, when it dramatically changed upon the introduction of Fernandes and Rashford.
Rashford, who has been making headlines off the pitch for his incredible endeavour to turn around government policies regarding child food poverty, put in a fantastic display, earning him a hat-trick and the match ball. He showed that on his day he can be devastating, something Leipzig’s defenders can now attest to.
Although Rashford very much stole the headlines, there was obviously more to United’s convincing win. There was a work ethic and competitive edge about them as a team which are things we have very rarely seen combine effectively this season.
In the middle of the pitch, Fred’s work rate covered more ground than any other player. He ran 10,568m in 90 minutes. His doggedness helped break up any Leipzig momentum and was instrumental in two of United’s goals.
Van de Beek also showed his willingness to work, covering 10,000m in just 70 minutes of playing time. His awareness of teammates around him and ability to move the ball with fluidity helped United maintain their composure.
The midfield diamond Solskjaer used allowed Pogba to play in his favoured left midfield role. His driving run from the left that set up Rashford for his first goal was reminiscent of the Pogba we once saw playing for Juventus.
The strength, awareness of space and delivery of an inch-perfect pass is what United fans want from Pogba week in and week out. Playing on the left side of midfield may help that cause.
Much has been made of the lack of stability in the United team. This has been brought about because of the frequent changes to the team and formation.
It’s fair to say United’s win against Leipzig could not be accredited to any particular playing style the team have developed, but the frequency of the changes to the team has brought about much-needed competitiveness within the team for a first-team place.
Competition for a starting place in all areas of the pitch is now fierce. Can the likes of Fernandes and Pogba afford to have bad games with Van de Beek waiting to put in the hard work in midfield?
Can Harry Maguire or Victor Lindelof afford any further slip-ups with Axel Tuanzebe waiting to come into the defence and take command?
Even the currently shining Rashford will know his place is not secure with the talented young Greenwood and experienced Edinson Cavani waiting in the wings.
It’s clear Solskjaer is still finding his feet as United manager and is still learning so much about what his best team is.
During his tenure, his starting eleven has been inconsistent, and on many occasions has not shown the intensity and winning mentality United fans have become accustomed to over the years.
But the added competition in all areas of the pitch could be the driving force that ensures United’s starting eleven at least maintain the much-needed work ethic and competitive edge they need to help them win games.