his was an afternoon of blood and roses in Yorkshire, a fun, bruising, furious mess of a game. Midway through the second half there was an interlude where six players joined in a kind of rolling, whirling maul close to the centre circle, bodies entwined like a multicoloured octopus writhing on the quayside, the ball punted, thrashed, semi-forgotten.
At times Manchester United almost seemed to get a hold on the day, to take the air out of this fury, only for a misplaced pass or a splash of the sodden pitch to leave them chasing back once again. But by the end it was an afternoon that seemed to offer something else too, a significant note in this ongoing, oddly fraught United mini-era.
There had been strange noises around the red side of Manchester all week, whispers and groans, the sense of something rotten in the state of Ralf Rangnick. Nothing was resolved here. A rousing 4-2 win offered three more points en route to the season-saving goal of a place in the Champions League. But it felt like a purging experience all the same.
This is a clattery metal hangar of a ground, the corrugated stands creating a uniquely footballing sound, like the tonal quality on a vinyl LP. At times that shared energy seemed to spill from the stands to the pitch, lines blurring as goals were scored, intruders wrestled by stewards, objects thrown. It was wild out there, a wild fixture on a wild afternoon at a wild moment in time.
In the middle of all this, it was also a very good game for Jadon Sancho, who has begun to find himself here in recent weeks. Starting on the right, Sancho was neat, effective and constantly involved. He grew more assured as the game went on. He made more dribbles and had more passes in the attacking third than any other player.
Sancho is like this at his best, a relentless source of pressure with the skill to produce his own bespoke little moments of skill and incision. Wind him up and let him go: he really should be nothing but an asset to this team.
He also gave the final pass for two of the goals, although on both occasions others played a larger part in breaking Leeds open. Sancho is also still only 21 years old, an itinerant presence who has never played in an occasion quite like this, but still produced his best game at United.
It felt like a block to build around. Not to mention an interesting point of comparison with Paul Pogba, who started in a risky-looking midfield duo with Scott McTominay. In his hour and a bit on the pitch Elland Road witnessed a perfect running tableau of Pogba-ism, a rounded picture of inalienable strengths and inalienable weaknesses.
Some will point to his almost total disappearance as Leeds came back to make it 2-2, a man suddenly doing a very slow cross-country jog in the middle of a rain-sodden football match.
But Pogba was also United’s main source of incision early on. At times he looked like the only person “playing football” in the middle of all that blunt and necessary energy.
Pogba lost the ball, misplaced 40% of his passes, was rolled like a revolving door in the centre circle and left face-down in the mulch.
But he kept getting up. And he did the two best things in the opening half-hour. First he produced an opportunity so beautifully gift-wrapped it seemed to glimmer with spangles and rolled ribbons, standing up against Adam Forshaw, leaning one way, feinting back, then gliding into open space. The cross found a route through Diego Llorente’s legs only for Illan Meslier to produce a sublime one‑handed save as Cristiano Ronaldo scuffed his connection.
A few minutes later Pogba did it again, wriggling and bouncing away from two white shirts in the tiniest of spaces, like a man getting changed in a telephone box, then laying on a nudged pass for Bruno Fernandes to shoot. From the corner that followed Harry Maguire opened the scoring, holding off Forshaw and butting the ball into the net.
Fernandes scored United’s second in first-half stoppage time. Victor Lindelöf spotted a huge open space and simply galloping forward. His pass found Sancho with time to hang a cross up for Fernandes to nod home almost inside the six-yard box.
Leeds were energised at the start of the second half. Rodrigo pulled one back. After which point a simple short Manchester United pass into Fernandes, standing 45 yards from goal, stopped on the marshy grass and was duly stolen from his toe, leaving Fernandes in a wailing heap as Dan James’s cross was turned in by Raphina.
With 70 minutes gone it was 3-2. Fred provided the finish, snaking in behind Sancho to take his elegant little layoff, then spanking the ball in from a sharp angle. Anthony Elanga added a fourth. And in that final 20 minutes there was something else, a rare sense of grace for this cut-and-shut team, crammed with oddities, pressed-men, monuments to managers past.
Faced with this obstacle, Ralf’s United, a place of schisms and cliques, had produced something coherent and spirited. This was the real beauty of an occasion that felt at times like a trip into some rousing and deeply stylised version of the footballing past. Whatever the systemic issues, the weird structures, the sharp commercial teeth driving this club, the game still gets in at the edges. With Sancho beginning to bloom, this short-lived United team will feel it has something that passes for momentum.