Jadon Sancho’s equaliser was a sweet moment for a player returning from physical and mental wellbeing problems. When he crashed in on 70 minutes the sound from Manchester United’s delirious fans was matched by the dazzling grin from Erik ten Hag: the manager hailed the goal but he also loved the identity of the scorer.
Sancho, making only a second appearance since October, entered as a substitute into a rip-roaring contest in which Leeds had taken a 2-0 lead before United’s fightback. Headers from Raphaël Varane and Bruno Fernandes and a late Rashford stabbed effort might have claimed victory yet Leeds deserved a draw for a display that drew chants of “Yorkshire, Yorkshire” and “marching on together” from supporters proud from the first whistle to the last.
Leeds caught their hosts not cold but in a deep-freeze. Just 56 seconds were gone when Fernandes was hustled by Pascal Struijk. The ball went to Wilfried Gnonto who exchanged passes with Patrick Bamford before drilling past a flat-footed David de Gea.
The Old Trafford faithful were stunned, Ten Hag in stare-mode, rooted to his seat. On the touchline, Michael Skubala punched air in delight. The co-caretaker, a former England futsal coach and Leeds Under-21 manager, had only 24 hours to prepare his charges following Jesse Marsch’s sacking, and on this evidence had used these prudently.
Fernandes was having a stinker. In striving to save a throw-in he gave the ball to Leeds for a corner. Crysencio Summerville, on for the injured Luis Sinisterra, tapped the ball on, a cross went in, and Bamford’s flick was chested goalwards by Struijk and Diogo Dalot cleared off the line.
By now, Ten Hag was standing and glaring from the technical area. He saw Marcel Sabitzer, making his full debut, make a hash of a volley but his team were finally settling. A quick break had Fernandes flicking the ball to Alejandro Garnacho. The youngster thumped wide of Illan Meslier’s goal.
Next, Marcus Rashford hammered the ball into Struijk’s face, leaving the defender poleaxed and concussed and a doubt for Sunday’s return fixture at Elland Road.
Fernandes is United’s box-to-box midfielder and on surging into Leeds’s area watched Fred’s chip go long, so the No 8 showed the Brazilian how to deliver the goods. This was a snaking pass that split Leeds and though the lively Garnacho was shoved he still rounded Meslier. The 18-year-old coolly sold a dummy then hit what seemed to be the equaliser, only for Maximilian Wöber to head clear.
United had become a red blur that Leeds struggled to contain. Garnacho drew a foul on the left and took a Rashford cross, then witnessed Sabitzer shimmy with the ball on to his left and fashion a curler that Meslier beat out.
Before that Varane – via a boot and head – twice threatened to beat Meslier, whose fingers surely constantly tingled, and who was as defiant as the rest of the Leeds players, who were clearly here to fight.
United’s medical bulletin had listed Aaron Wan-Bissaka absent due to illness with Sancho limited to a place on the bench as he recovered from also feeling unwell. But the most significant absentee was Christian Eriksen. The Dane’s calm assurance might have cut through the hurly-burly to provide what United still lacked at the break – a goal.
Gnonto was Leeds’s Garnacho, a wide-left operator who bedevilled the opposition right-back, Dalot, who was twisted inside and out. Twice corners were won on his flank and, then, Gnonto created Leeds’s second – to Ten Hag’s chagrin.
After what looked like a handball, Robin Koch fed the Italian. He squeezed the ball to Summerville whose attempt beat De Gea by bouncing off Varane. Those who made the trip across the Pennines, vocal all evening, dialled up volume on their celebrations, and who could blame them? Their team were yet to win in the league in 2023.
Here was a test for Ten Hag’s men who had been hit inside one and three minutes of each half. The manager took Garnacho and the anonymous Wout Weghorst off for Sancho and Facundo Pellistri in a rejig that placed Rashford at centre-forward.
It worked: Pellistri fed Dalot whose delivery was headed home by Rashford for his 20th goal of the season.
Leeds went close to the perfect response. Brenden Aaronson, having come off the bench, fired a free-kick through a leaky wall and only De Gea’s right post saved United.
Then Sancho intervened. His strike was made by Luke Shaw whose sweet swivel had him turning and zipping back along the left. A one-two with Sancho followed and after the left-back crossed the ball rebounded back to the winger, who smashed in, and experienced true delight.
The weekend rematch, in white rose country, should be a barnburner.