Leeds expose United’s midfield frailties
This one hurt. While both sets of fans were up for a renewal of hostilities with the club’s Yorkshire rivals – delivering an electric atmosphere at OT – only Leeds rose to the occasion on the pitch, securing a famous victory that saw United dumped out of the FA Cup at the third-round stage for the first time in a quarter of a century.
The pivotal moment arrived in the 19th minute when Leeds’ in-form striker Jermaine Beckford gave Wes Brown the slip to slot in the only goal of the game from a tight angle.
This should have been a wake-up call but United were unable to move up the gears. They had enough chances to win the game – Wayne Rooney was unusually profligate in front of goal – but it was Leeds who came closest to scoring in the second half. Substitute Robert Snodgrass saw a freekick clatter against Tomasz Kuszczack’s cross bar and Beckford came close with a strike that flashed wide.
“They had a far bigger appetite for the game than us,” admitted Fergie, adding that he was “shocked” at the performance.
In hindsight, this was a difficult game for Fergie to call. Leeds may be two divisions below United but they are a team full of confidence and well-used to the type of feisty encounter that this game inevitably became.
But Fergie’s starting XI left United toothless in midfield. Gabriel Obertan, Darron Gibson, Anderson and Danny Welbeck is not a midfield quartet to strike fear into the heart of a visiting team, and an energetic Leeds side were snapping at their heels all afternoon.
Welbeck appeared out of position on the left and Obertan fared little better on the opposite flank. Meanwhile, in the centre of the park, Gibson had a day to forget, miscuing a number of passes in the final third, while Anderson was mostly anonymous and eventually sacrificed for Michael Owen in the second half as United chased the game.
Fergie seems unsure of his best midfield right now, as he has been all season, but this certainly wasn’t it. Darren Fletcher’s industry and Michael Carrick’s precision were sorely missed, and Ryan Giggs – a second half replacement for Obertan – was not allowed the time or space to make a difference.
There were also problems defensively where Jonny Evans and Wes Brown – the latter added to the team sheet last minute after Nemanja Vidic pulled up in the warm up – were given a torrid time by Beckford’s pace. Elsewhere, Gary Neville was erratic and Fabio da Silva, at left back, was unable to provide the attacking threat usually supplied by the absent Patrice Evra.
Pundits made much of the fact that this was the 100th consecutive game in which Fergie has named a different starting XI. This run began in May 2008 and United have bagged plenty of silverware in the meantime – but squad rotation can always go wrong, and it did on Sunday.
“I didn’t expect that performance, it was shocking. I’ve no complaints about the result,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“Leeds deserved to win. They got breaks at times but deserved their luck – I’m disappointed.
“We did speak about Beckford’s pace up front. We were caught napping really, it was a bad goal for us to lose. The whole performance in the first half was bad. We never got going and the quality of the passing… the whole performance was just bad.
“I don’t think any of the players can say they had a good day. Maybe only [substitute Antonio] Valencia, when he came on, can say that. Even then it took us about 10 minutes to get the ball to him.
“You expect us to get a goal at Old Trafford and the intensity of our game improved a little bit in the second half. We had a lot of chances in the box but on the day we didn’t take them.”
The visitors did and it could be some time before United has the opportunity to avenge this defeat while Leeds will no doubt be dining out on the result for many years to come.
However, United face more immediate concerns in the shape of the League cup semi-final against City, with the first leg starting on Wednesday. This is surely now a “must win” to avoid the ignominy of another cup exit at the hands of a bitter rival.