The mouth watering tie of the round arrived at Old Trafford as fierce rivals Manchester United and Leeds came up against each other for the first time in six years. The result and performance from the League one outfit were simply staggering and shows there is still plenty of life, spirit and heart in the FA Cup to make it a truly unique domestic cup competition – appreciated around the world.
Leeds United have been in terrific form this season and are the current in-form team throughout the four English leagues. Players such as Jermaine Beckford, Robert Snodgrass and Jonathan Howson have been emerging as key players for Leeds with standout performances in the league, putting themselves in the shop window for Championship sides and possibly even Premier League teams. The hunger and desire that the Leeds side showed at Old Trafford was a testament to their players and the manager Simon Grayson, who is becoming a well renowned young manager collecting a handful of the plaudits.
A key component in the terrific 1-0 victory on Sunday afternoon was the central midfield pairing of Michael Doyle and Neil Kilkenny. The energy and drive that the pair had was incredible, forcing the United centre midfield duo of Anderson and the in-form Darron Gibson into simple mistakes. Kilkenny in particular drove forward and linked the play up beautifully between Luciano Becchio and Beckford. Thus causing real problems for the United backline as he dropped into holes between the red midfield and defence. Leeds had perfected their tactics leading up to the game achieving a great balance of defence and counter-attacking football. Becchio had the job of holding up the ball to bring the Leeds United wingers and central midfielders into the fray. The pace of Beckford was used as an outlet for the Leeds counter attack, a perfect example of this on display for the winning goal. Howson’s beautifully crafted ball exposed Manchester United as they attacked and Beckford’s raw pace and finishing ability helped him away from Wes Brown and gave Leeds a well deserved goal.
Manchester United seemed to lack the desire and motivation required to succeed in the cup, something which is extremely rare in any of Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides. The team that Sir Alex fielded certainly had a backbone of experience, with Gary Neville, Brown, Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov all starting the game. However Manchester United lacked any of their usual guile or craft in creating something out of the blue or against the run of play. The youth and exuberance of Danny Welbeck and Gabriel Obertan did not shine through as the pair seemed ineffective in the wide areas, especially in the first half as they failed to create opportunities for Berbatov or Rooney up-front. The bandaged figure of Patrick Kisnorbo was instrumental in stopping the two world-class strikers, as the former Leicester City man headed everything clear in what was a superb individual performance. The team were fuelled with grit and determination and impressed not only the manager but the fantastic 9000 travelling army from Yorkshire.
An underlying issue for Manchester United here was the fact that they were without the energy and harassing nature of Scotsman Darren Fletcher. Manchester United seemed almost ponderous and one dimensional in central midfield, out-run by the will power of Leeds. On Sunday Sir Alex opted for an inexperienced central midfield of Anderson and Gibson, instead of selecting creativity and passing craft in Michael Carrick who was left on the bench. Although Anderson has the potential to be a talisman in the future for United, his form has been poor of late and this was shown by the dominance, particularly in the first half that the Leeds United pair of Kilkenny and Doyle had over the relatively inexperienced Manchester United duo.
Although tactics, formations and team selections can be analysed throughout the beautiful game of football, nothing beats the passion, shock and sheer love that goes into an FA Cup third round weekend. In a weekend of few shocks, the Leeds result was a fantastic one for them and their travelling army of fans. The fierce rivalry and drama could only be brought back by the wonderful cup competition we know and love, and this game will certainly go down as one of the classics.