No need to panic but Old Trafford hiding highlights central Leeds United issue

Leeds United did not get carried away with a ninth-placed finish, and nor should there be any overreaction from Saturday’s hiding at Old Trafford.

Sunday, 15th August 2021, 2:49 pm

However, the heavy Manchester United reverse clearly highlighted the areas where the Whites need to improve and that starts in centre midfield, particularly in the absence of Kalvin Phillips.

For Leeds, Saturday’s Premier League opener at Old Trafford was always going to be a tall order.

The Red Devils might not have won the league since 2013 but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side ended the previous campaign as runners up, finishing five points clear of Liverpool and seven ahead of Chelsea.

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PROBLEM AREA: Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes, right, pictured lashing home to complete a hat-trick, caused chaos in the middle of the park for Leeds United and Robin Koch, left, at Old Trafford. Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images.

The hosts were also cheered on by some 72,000 fans upon their full return to Old Trafford to see a Red Devils side boosted by some expensive summer recruits.

The Whites were duly blitzed, falling to a four-goal cushion defeat at Old Trafford for the second time in nine months.

Yet there were no dramatic knee-jerk reactions following the 6-2 hiding in December and the same should really apply now although Leeds will clearly be assessing just what went wrong and essentially that was quite a lot.

But whilst the Whites could have done with the injured Diego Llorente, the root of the problems came in centre midfield which was unsurprising given that England international star Phillips was left on the bench.

That always looked potentially on the cards following Bielsa’s words at his pre match press conference.

In short, Phillips was fit enough to play but without having had the desired amount of fitness work as part of a shortened pre-season.

Whether Phillips should have started anyway is another matter but what’s not in doubt is that he was hugely missed in the defensive centre midfield role.

It should be remembered that Phillips did start at CDM in December’s 6-2 hammering at Old Trafford, in which the Yorkshire Pirlo was hooked at half-time. But Leeds are quite clearly a different side when he is in the team.

This time, the CDM duty fell to German international centre-back Robin Koch who has featured heavily in the position in pre-season and lined up behind Mateusz Klich in the middle of the park.

But whilst Koch is certainly capable of doing a job there, Saturday’s clash showed that, without Phillips, Leeds will be in huge danger of being carved open by the better sides.

Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba ran the show and the Red Devils had 16 attempts at goal with eight shots on target compared to Leeds’ ten attempts with three on target.

It’s unfair just to highlight Koch or even Klich as the Leeds success has been built on being a team and Leeds were generally sloppy throughout and guilty of squandering possession.

But it was still all too easy for the Red Devils to either run or pass their way through the middle of the park.

Leeds certainly had their chances to net more than just the once and the Whites squandered a golden chance at 0-0 when Patrick Bamford and Rodrigo both darted towards a Raphinha free-kick which the former headed wide.

But the Red Devils themselves would have added to their tally of five with sharper finishing.

With another week behind him, Phillips will surely be back in the team for next weekend’s Elland Road date against Everton for which the Whites are likely to be a different proposition.

Everton are also no Manchester United and Leeds will also be roared on by a capacity Elland Road crowd.

Confidence would be further boosted if Phillips starts.

But there will always be times when Leeds are without him and the Old Trafford blitz definitely highlighted the importance of the midfield in his absence.

How Leeds go about that remains to be seen and it’s not an easy puzzle to solve.

You can’t just go out and buy another player similar to Phillips with a similar level of ability just to sit on the bench although you could try and get one who can fill a variety of roles.

But if not Leeds and Bielsa will have to work the oracle from within, something that has been done before, raising hopes that it will be achieved again.

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Thank you Laura Collins