Manchester United took the chance to unveil one French World Cup winner and unleash another. After Raphael Varane was paraded on the pitch, Paul Pogba flourished on it. So did Bruno Fernandes. United started the season with a statement, a flurry and a flourish.
Fernandes scored only their second Premier League hat-trick at Old Trafford since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Pogba went one better, becoming just the seventh player to register four assists in a game in the division’s 29-year history. “A perfect day,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Leeds United may not concur: thrashed 6-2 by historic foes last December, they lost by four goals again.
This amounted to a declaration, to an ominous display of attacking talent. Solskjaer’s side had scored five goals before they even introduced Anthony Martial and Jadon Sancho, the debutant who should add further potency. Marcus Rashford remains injured.
While Mason Greenwood played a supporting role and while Fred added a fifth goal, the double act of Pogba and Fernandes destroyed Leeds. “Those two can produce the big moments because of what’s around them,” said Solskjaer.
The Portuguese had been a talismanic figure in an empty Old Trafford, his United career barely six weeks old when the stands were vacated. He reprised that role to greater applause as, for the first time in 17 months, it was packed. “It creates and sets the mood when you see the fans driving to the stadium,” said Solskjaer. “You get the butterflies again. To have that love from the fans is so important.”
Fernandes had looked a crowd-pleaser when there was no crowd, but a status as a favourite was apparent here. His third goal, rifled into the roof of the net, was the pick. Leeds missed Kalvin Phillips, not yet match fit after his run to the final of Euro 2020, as they could not keep track of Fernandes.
Pogba, meanwhile, wandered around with languid cool, releasing a series of brilliant passes. “Paul has got that vision, he has got that quality,” said Solskjaer. The best may be destined to rank among the finest anyone plays this season: from deep in his own half, travelling 40 yards, rolled and curved into the path of Greenwood, who angled a shot in off the far post.
It restored United’s advantage. Leeds were briefly level, courtesy of another wonderful goal in a game packed full of them, Luke Ayling’s rasping, rising drive. Otherwise, however, they had little to cherish. The good news came earlier in the week when first Bielsa and then Illan Meslier signed new contracts. The goalkeeper was kept busy retrieving the ball from his net.
The first time came courtesy of a Pogba pass for the on-rushing Fernandes. Meslier almost kept his half-volley out. After Ayling levelled and Greenwood capped a display of fine movement and impudent skill with his goal, Pogba found Fernandes. Goal-line technology proved his effort crossed the line before Ayling’s valiant attempt to keep it out. “Bruno will always score penalties but the timing of his runs was great,” said Solskjaer.
Maybe United’s fourth would have been disallowed last season, when VAR was more interventionist. Victor Lindelof Lindelof is likely to lose his place to Varane but showed a passing range few thought he possessed, unleashing Fernandes, who drilled a shot into the roof of the net. He was not ruled offside.
“The succession of three goals in such a short space of time overcame us,” said Bielsa. “To have lost the way we lost can't be described as just a blip. In general lines they were clearly superior to us.”
That was shown when Pogba then strolled through to set up Fred to sidefoot in a rare goal. “When Fred scores, we know everyone can score,” said Solskjaer. He then took a strange form of pity on Leeds, removing Pogba and replacing him with Sancho. It was a substitution that, in itself, should constitute a warning to the rest of the division.