If it is a one-game reign, then what a game. Michael Skubala may return to the shadows, to the world of Under-21 management, but only after a heady taste of the limelight. Under the unknown, Leeds ended Manchester United’s run of 13 successive home victories. For an hour, they were on course for a first league victory at Old Trafford in Skubala’s lifetime. But, with and without Jesse Marsch, Leeds have a tendency to lose leads and Manchester United have the resolve to mount a response. Leeds were marching on together without Marsch, contributing to a classic, playing with a verve and a dynamism that may have been a reaction to the manager’s sacking. But, by the end, they only have two wins in 18 league games.
Yet it was about a newcomer, a returning hero and the great constant in every Manchester United storyline at the moment. When Leeds could envision ending a wait that dates back to 1981, Marcus Rashford scored his inevitable goal. He has 20 for a season that has almost four months left to run. Yet a comeback was completed by a player on his own journey back: Jadon Sancho’s first goal since September came on his longest outing since October. Half an hour as a substitute offered a reminder of his quality.
Sancho had been out of the picture and out of the squad, not even on the bench for a 16-game absence either side of the World Cup that was only partly explained by injury. Illness meant he did not start but he was summoned with United two goals adrift. Sancho had only been on for 11 minutes when Luke Shaw’s cross was cut out, the rebound fell to him and he whipped in a low shot. It was more than just his fourth goal of the season. It was a sizeable step in his renaissance.
Erik ten Hag played his part in the comeback, too. Wout Weghorst had been utterly ineffectual, enduring his worst game for United. When he was removed, Rashford, who had started on the right flank, moved infield and scored three minutes later, heading in Diogo Dalot’s cross for a 12th goal in 14 games. No one has scored more since the World Cup.
And then, unleashed in the middle, Rashford felt unstoppable, to borrow Ten Hag’s favourite description. Manchester United, who looked liable to be overrun and overcome, instead acquired the momentum. They almost took the three points. Raphael Varane had a header tipped over by Illan Meslier, Bruno Fernandes whistled a shot over and headed just wide. Rashford’s close-range effort was stopped by the goalkeeper.
For United, the first hour showcased the strengths and weaknesses of Alejandro Garnacho, The teenager was terrific at times, displaying a willingness to run at Leeds, but was wasteful in possession and lost the ball before their second goal. He perhaps should have scored himself. First the Argentinian dragged a shot just wide. Then after his skill left first Meslier and then Luke Ayling on their backsides on the ground, he could not beat Max Wober, who had retreated to the line. But United, missing the control the suspended Casemiro could have offered them, had looked susceptible to Leeds’ raids.
It was exhilarating stuff, played at an incredible pace; Leeds had set the tone, flying out of the blocks. If Wilfried Gnonto looked the sharpest player on the pitch, there was plenty of pace on either side.
The 19-year-old Gnonto scored their first goal and played a part in the second. The 21-year-old Crysencio Summerville claimed it, though Varane turned in the Dutchman’s cross. Two youths seemed to have propelled Leeds into a future without Marsch. Each, though, kicked on under the dismissed American. They are part of his legacy.
Gnonto has the fearlessness of youth and the acceleration of a player who can seem to go from first gear to fifth in a blur. One of cheaper arrivals in the £170m spending spree under Marsch, the young Italian is shaping up as the most explosive and exciting, a player whose dynamism illuminated the darkness at the end of Marsch’s reign.
His first-minute goal was a caretaker-manager bounce for the rookie suddenly in charge. Leeds scored their fastest Premier League goal since 2001. Swift starters also struck in the third minute of the second half. Skubala may be new to team talks at his level, but his may have been inspired.
They made a remarkable start to his temporary gig. Gnonto exchanged passes with Patrick Bamford, cut in from the left and drilled a shot past David de Gea. It was almost two soon after, De Gea clawing away Pascal Struijk’s close-range header. Instead the second came just after the break. Having won at Anfield in October, Leeds threatened a remarkable double. Even after Rashford struck, Brenden Aaronson curled a free kick through an apology for a wall and against the foot of the post.
He came off the bench, but perhaps Leeds were starting to run out of players. Leeds had lost Marc Roca and Liam Cooper since Sunday. They were deprived of Luis Sinisterra and Pascal Struijk in the first quarter. Initially that seemed to benefit them: indeed Sinisterra made way for Summerville. And when his intervention put Leeds 2-0 up, the interim plucked from the junior side seemed destined for a place in their history. Instead a draw may not define either side’s season. But it was breathless, brilliant stuff.