Paul Pogba cuts a liberated figure in Manchester United’s win over Leeds

Paul Pogba cuts a liberated figure in Manchester United’s win over Leeds

It was a chance to display new acquisitions. Manchester United led the way, parading Raphaël Varane on the pitch before kick-off, using a quadruple Champions League winner and a 2018 world champion as proof of their largesse. Leeds produced an idiosyncratic response. Enter Marcelo Bielsa, soon to perch on a new bucket.

Unlike the other United, Bielsa has never been a slave to the transfer market. He believes improvement comes from within, aided by relentless running. Luke Ayling has symbolised it. He was a right-back in the lower half of the Championship when Bielsa inherited him and a scorer of a spectacular goal at Old Trafford on Saturday. When Leeds were briefly level, it served as an endorsement of their manager’s credo.

Twenty minutes later, with Leeds losing 5-1 and with Bielsa’s aggregate score in two trips here standing at 11-3 in favour of the other United, he was left looking like the man who came to a gun fight armed only with a bucket.

Money can do that. Paul Pogba has shed his tag as the most expensive signing in Premier League history, Jack Grealish and Romelu Lukaku demoting him to a lowly third on the list. Whether or not a burden was lifted, the £89m midfielder looked liberated; here, at least, he appeared value for money. Four assists were testament to his remarkable passing range.

Bruno Fernandes’s fee could yet reach £67m, though he has dealt in other large numbers since his arrival. An insatiable quest for goals brought a hat-trick and, perhaps, an early reminder to Jadon Sancho that he will do well to outscore Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s flagship buy.

Leeds were outgunned. There is an ambition in playing attacking football against clubs who can afford a higher calibre of attacker. Bielsa’s two visits to Old Trafford have featured 68 shots and the suggestions Leeds were too naive peaked after their 6-2 defeat last December. Instead, a ninth-place finish and a fine record against their supposed superiors suggested pragmatism and purism allied in a beguiling blend.

Leeds were unaccustomed to a status as the neutrals’ favourites until they returned to the Premier League with a 4-3 loss at Anfield. They now specialise in spectacular starts to the season, after odd impasses. Lionel Messi was not the only iconoclastic Argentinian to spend much of the summer out of contract before putting pen to paper. Bielsa’s latest deal was less surprising and signed 48 hours before Leeds’s campaign started; that represented a case of getting things done quickly. Last season he formally committed to Leeds the day before that visit to Liverpool. The new terms and conditions probably did not include the upgraded, plusher bucket, compete with cushion.

Minus Roy Hodgson, Bielsa has inherited the mantle of the Premier League’s oldest manager. He makes few concessions to ageing and if he is not slowing down, his team certainly are not. Bielsa has become the division’s unlikely elder statesman, albeit in the manner of an odd, obsessive uncle. Certainly he pursues his own path. His wins feel triumphs of ideology, his defeats setbacks stemming from stubbornness.

Leeds found Fernandes irrepressible in the December defeat. Fast forward eight months and they had the same problem. Bielsa has had a transformative impact on Kalvin Phillips, but the England international’s excellence has underlined how Leeds lack a suitable alternative. With Phillips on the bench, Fernandes eluded Robin Koch at will. A defender crowbarred into midfield saw his immediate opponent score three times.

Not for Bielsa the safety blanket of two holding players, even though Solskjær prospered by continuing with “McFred”, the double act of Scott McTominay and Fred who afforded Pogba and Fernandes licence to roam.

Fernandes’s centrality means Pogba has been shunted out to the left. The Frenchman is Old Trafford’s enduring enigma but a recurring theme is that he often responds to the presence of quality players around him. He and Fernandes dovetailed, swapping positions at will, Pogba wandering infield. He looked the laid-back quarterback, clipping a pass of deft delicacy for Fernandes’s first goal, releasing Greenwood with a ball of surgical precision and artistic curve.

In quintessential Pogba fashion, it was not a perfect performance: he was labouring in pursuit of the all-action Ayling when the right-back hammered in an equaliser. It is early to recycle predictions this will be his season, but until France’s premature exit, it looked like it could have been his European Championships. But on his day, Pogba can outclass more gifted sides than Leeds and this was an afternoon when Bielsa’s boldness backfired.