FOR the vast majority of the 2018-19 campaign, this summer’s pre-season friendly between Leeds United and Manchester United in Australia looked like being an all-Premier League aperitif.
Alas, the two sides locked horns in Perth with divisional statuses as they were when the Roses rivals last met in 2011; the Whites still stuck in English football’s second tier.
A timely reminder of just what the upper echelon of the top division offered was illustrated clearly through Manchester United’s eye-watering team sheet.
Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, Dan James. Remember him? The likes of Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial on the bench.
Even without the unwell David De Gea and injured Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, facing the Red Devils would have been a tough ask at the best of times – let alone with several Whites first teamers back at Thorp Arch and concentrating on fitness work, such was head coach Marcelo Bielsa’s wish.
As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side lined up with 13 substitutes, Leeds arrived with five with only two Whites first-team outings as late second half substitutes between them.
A tall order and a rather predictable outcome.
Yet 90 minutes against the Red Devils again hammered home a message highlighted all too often last season – that Bielsa’s otherwise impressive Whites can ill afford to be so wasteful with their chances and that question marks remain hanging over United’s back line, especially following Pontus Jansson’s sale to Brentford.
In the defence of United’s defence, Bielsa’s Whites will not face an examination anywhere near as stern as the one asked of them in Perth when it comes to next season’s Championship campaign.
The Red Devils lined up with a front three that screamed pace in Rashford, James and teen star Mason Greenwood, born in Bradford. With World Cup winner Pogba among those supplying the service, it took the Red Devils just seven minutes to open the scoring through Greenwood who converted £50m recruit Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s cross from close range.
The Whites would have conceded six but for twice being saved by the post. Yet even against one of the best teams in the land, Leeds’ first-half showing featured invention and endeavour that ultimately failed to be rewarded by a single goal.
Encouragingly, the Whites lined up with a side that ought to be considerably stronger come the first game of the new season at Bristol City on August 4.
Marquee summer signing, Helder Costa, Polish international Mateusz Klich, Brighton loanee centre-back Ben White, England under-20s ace Jamie Shackleton and right-back Luke Ayling all remained at Thorp Arch along with Tottenham’s new £9m recruit but now Whites loanee Jack Clarke, Wales forward Tyler Roberts, Macedonian international Gjanni Alioski and Northern Ireland goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
It all meant that United started with a host of first-team options missing and still a strong enough side but with scant strength in depth.
Kiko Casilla took his place behind a defence of Barry Douglas, captain Liam Cooper, Gaetano Berardi and Stuart Dallas with Leeds again going with the experiment of Berardi at centre-back. White, back at Thorp Arch, will likely partner Cooper at centre-back come the season itself.
In Perth, Kalvin Phillips and Adam Forshaw filled the central midfield roles behind a three-man axis of Pablo Hernandez, Kemar Roofe and Jack Harrison behind lone striker, Patrick Bamford. Leeds should have left with several goals for their efforts. Yet the Red Devils could have been over halfway to double figures after Greenwood’s opener which arrived five minutes after Rashford’s low shot had hit the post.
Pogba also blazed a free-kick just wide before producing a strong save from Casilla but Leeds gradually began to show what they can offer. Harrison looked lively on the left flank and the Manchester City loanee fired an effort into the side netting.
Pogba hit back by curling a good attempt just wide but Hernandez then shot straight at Sergio Romero before Bamford’s low shot from a Harrison cross was kept out by Romero’s legs.
Just one minute later, the Red Devils doubled their lead by countering three on two, allowing Scott McTominay to feed Rashford who left Berardi on his backside before slotting home past Casilla.
Leeds continued to attack and Hernandez saw a shot deflected wide before Roofe put a header straight at Romero. A low Dallas cross was then hacked away before the post again saved Leeds from conceding a third to James.
Nonetheless, the Whites had certainly been competitive, albeit vulnerable to the pace of the Red Devils’ attack.
But then came the turning point with Solskjaer changing his entire XI at the break and bringing on the likes of Lingard, Martial and the highly rated Tahith Chong in attack.
Leeds, meanwhile, came out for the second half unchanged and tiring legs facing even more pace meant even more problems, although Harrison squandered a fine chance when bobbling a weak shot wide from inside the box.
Yet now it was Andreas Pereira causing Leeds bother and after the Brazilian international had brought about a smart save from Casilla, Pereira’s corner was finished by a towering Phil Jones header.
A Chong cross then flew across the Whites’ box before Leeds squandered another opportunity through Harrison who blazed over from a Forshaw cutback.
Yet the Red Devils were firmly on top and a one-two between Chong and Martial ended with Cooper flummoxed by Chong’s Cruyff turn on the byline and hacking down the Dutchman for a penalty.
Martial finished coolly and really that was that with Leeds not surprisingly running out of steam with only young guns Mateusz Bogusz, Bryce Hosannah and Jordan Stevens brought on from the bench.
Leeds ran out of gas – and ideas – and the Red Devils would have added a fifth had Phillips not produced a strong challenge on Jones.
Lingard also sild an effort just wide and the game finished with a flashpoint between Ashley Young and Forshaw with Young incensed by an earlier challenge and subsequently booked for hacking down Forshaw on the touchline.
Phillips was also booked in the first half for a late tackle on Juan Mata while Douglas was lucky to avoid a caution for another late one.
Friendly or otherwise, this, after all, was Leeds against Manchester United.
For Leeds, promising signs but work ahead to correct the same old issues to ensure the clash is a regular league date from 2020 and beyond.
Leeds United: Casilla, Douglas, Forshaw, Cooper, Roofe, Bamford (Bogusz 63), Dallas (Hosannah 66), Hernandez (Stevens 77), Harrison, Phillips, Berardi. Subs not used: Miazek, Oduor.
Manchester United first half: Romero, Wan-Bissaka, Bailly, Lindelof, Rojo, McTominay, Pogba, Greenwood, Mata, James, Rashford.
Manchester United second half: J Pereira, Dalot, Smalling, Jones, Young, Matic (Garner 78), A Pereira, Chong, Gomes, Lingard, Martial. Sub not used: Tuanzebe.