Manchester United v Leeds United...a centuries-old fierce rivalry that originates from the strong enmity between the historic counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, who fought each other to the death in the Wars of the Roses. After centuries of simmering indiference, hostilities resumed in the 1960's when both teams possessed arguably two of the greatest managers seen in British football and battled it out for domestic and contintental dominance. To emphasise the disaccord, the colours of each football team's home shirts fittingly corresponded to the respective rose representing their historic county – Leeds with a white kit, resembling the Yorkshire rose and Manchester United with a red shirt, like the Lancashire rose.
Sir Matt Busby and Don Revie had wildly different approaches to the game and one of Leeds' major protagonists happened to be a player who had come through at Manchester United (only to be considered expendable by Busby)... a certain Johnny Giles. With both teams neck and neck in the epic 1964/65 title race, they would famously face each other in the semi-finals of the FA Cup for a chance to reach the final. It would take a nail-biting replay to seperate the sides, with Leeds scoring an 89th minute winner after nearly 180 minutes of all-out warfare with very little goalmouth action, leading the Yorkshire Post to comment "both sides behaved like a pack of dogs snapping and snarling at each other over a bone". Whilst Leeds won the battle, United would ultimately win the war... narrowly winning the title due to a better goal average and going on to make their presence felt in Europe.
In the 90's after decades of underachievement and relegations suffered by both clubs, both teams would once again resume their top-flight rivalry with newly-promoted Leeds now under the stewardship of Howard Wilkinson. In what would prove to be the last league championship before the introduction of the Premier League, a compelling title race would once again ensue between Leeds United and Manchester United. Thanks to the likes of Gordon Strachan (who was bought from Manchester United) and Eric Cantona, Leeds won the league by four points. In what would prove to be the turning point in the fortune of both clubs, Cantona was then inexplicably sold to Manchester United for £1.2 million, going on to become the cornerstone of Manchester United's 1990s revival.
Thus whilst it would be overstating their rivalry to say this is the biggest fixture on their respective calenders this season, it is an undoubtedly intoxicaing fixture which has stood the test of time. Furthermore from a tactical perspective it should be an occasion to savour with both managers once again at the opposite ends of the spectrum both in terms of managerial experience and philosophies. Marcelo Bielsa, the much-lauded godfather of proactive automation and the high press versus the universally derided reactive and lasses-faire approach of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. One trusts in his system, the other simply trusts his players.
One of the standout statisics for the Manchester United backline has been their aerial dominance. They have an aerial success rate of 55.9% which can be attributed to the influence of 'slabhead' Harry Maguire who averages a mammoth 80% success rate in the air. Leeds would therefore be advised against crossing the ball anywhere in the vicinity of the Englishman and target his partner, the rather fragile Victor Lindelof who in contrast averages 59% in the air. Bamford is not a killer in the air, but he has scored 3 with his head - just one behind Calvert-Lewin and Leeds have put in the most crosses this season, 201 (even more than Arsenal!). With his above average 33% aerial success rate, he is not to be taken lightly when the ball is put into the box especially if he targets Lindelof.
In stark contrast to a team like Arsenal, Manchester United do not struggle to fashion chances or convert them. Admittedly, they do not have a systemic production line when it comes to chance creation, but their off the cuff nature means they are more likely to take a punt when it is least expected (they are 2nd in the table for distance of shots which have led to goals) and they can string together devasting periods of dominance which can take the breath away. It might not satisfy the football purists,and they tend to outscore their XG but there is no doubt that their attack is both very effective and efficient - United will be second in the table if they defeat Leeds.
Leeds are the team who has made the most tackles in the league. More specifically they have made the most tackles and pressures in the attacking third, so they are a team which has fully committed to being on the front foot and not giving their opponents room to breath. Only Southampton come close in this respect wih even the likes of Liverpool and City unable to abide by this unrelenting philosophy. One has to question how effective and sustainable it is when Leeds have one of the worst defences in the league both in terms of actual goals conceded and expected goals conceded.
Leeds are one of the 4 best teams at keeping the ball in the Premier League. The teams ahead of them? Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. It is highly likely that they will dominate the large part of proceedings at Old Trafford, and create a plethora of chances. How is it then that they avoid their possession becoming stale... considering that none of their players are individually 'top-tier'?
Well switching the play is a massive component of Bielsa's philosophy. Building up down one side and transferring the ball to the other side of the pitch where there is space and the potential to progress the game - Leeds are 3rd in the league for switches of play. Furthermore they always look for the most direct option along the floor, seeking to progress the attack rather than just keep the ball for possession sake (3rd in the league for yards progressed when on the ball).
Rashford on the Counter
Rashford is the poster boy of Ole-ball. His performances can range from dire to devastating within the same 90 minutes, and whilst that can lead to accusations of inconsistent quality - he keeps turning it on so often that one has to admit it may just be part of his style as a footballer thus you can never truly keep your eye off him as he can win any given football match out of nowhere. He is paticularly dangerous against high pressing opponents, as Leipzig found out at their peril but he can also be made to look very raw by the very same type of opponents... his touch can be very poor as can his decision-making when rushed. In theory Leeds can take advantage via their aggressive press but Rashford could also break into form any moment.
Raphinha v Shaw or Telles
Jack Harrison may be Leeds' most consistent winger (scoring 2 goals and grabbing 4 assists) but his style of play is much more predictable than the likes of Helder Costa and Raphinha. This means Bielsa can rely upon him to produce a solid level of performance and expect a reliable form of build-up combination with Stuart Dallas down the left (though injuries mean Dallas might play on the right). On the opposite flank, Bielsa wants 'chaos' and this is where Raphinha has been delivering in spades recently. He may not be registering in terms of goals and assists but he can leave opposition full backs feeling very uncomfortabe and the opposition defensive shape in disarray. If Shaw starts, he can feel confident that Raphinha is unlikely to register any genuine outcomes but he will have to keep his wits about him as the Brazilian is a trickier customer than most.
Yorkshire Pirlo v Fernandes
It has been two games since Bruno registered a goal or an assist which is a lull by the Portuguese genius' standards. He will fancy giving Kalvin Phillips the run around here as the Englishman's defensive game is not his strong point. However he would be advised not to take his opponent too lightly as whilst Kevin De Bruyne was able to make 5 chances when Manchester City drew against them earlier in the season, none were registered as big chances and after a weak first half, Phillips found his feet and began to dominate proceedings in the second half. Thus Fernandes not only has to outwit his opponent in an attacking sense, but put in the hard yards to stop the Yorkshire Pirlo from being at the hub of Leeds' game when in possession.
Manchester United: De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Lindelof, Shaw, McTominay, Fred, Pogba, Fernandes, Rashford, Martial
Leeds United: Meslier, Ayling, Cooper, Alioski, Phillips, Raphinha, Rodrigo, Klich, Harrison, Bamford
Prediction: The performance against City demonstrated that United seem to have found a formula to strangle teams who seek to press high and keep the ball well. However City came into that encounter with a very passive mindset - their pressing numbers were abysmal and they played with minimal verticality. Expect Leeds to be a lot more like Leipzig, with an unrelenting commitment to the press, and fast paced football seeking to bypass the United midfield and looking to get shots off on goal. This means the encounter at Old Trafford will lead to a decisive result one way or another... Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword. Expect fireworks...
Expect United to get outplayed but edge their way to victory due to their more potent and decisive attack. At the moment leaning towards a United victory, but a final prediction will be made once the lineups are out on Twitter @pythaginboots.