Fernandes, Pogba get Man United’s season off to perfect start. Is this Solskjaer’s year?
A full house at Old Trafford for the first time in nearly 18 months, a new signing announced before kick-off, a hat trick from their talisman and an thumping victory over a hated rival — the 2021-22 Premier League campaign is off to a flyer for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his team after a 5-1 win over Leeds United.
Struggling in the transfer market and short on optimism, United lost the first game of last season to Crystal Palace. The mood a year later could not be more different.
“It has been a perfect day,” said Solskjaer afterwards. “Just driving in with the fans outside, you come inside and feel the energy, absolutely brilliant, it has been a very good day.”
It was always going to be an occasion with many supporters returning to watch a game for the first time since March 8, 2020, but a day which started with early pies and pints was lifted further when new centre-back Raphael Varane walked out onto the pitch, officially a United player after the completion of his move from Real Madrid. That was just the warm-up act.
When the real show started, Bruno Fernandes scored a hat trick and Paul Pogba continued his fine Euros form with four assists. A 40-yard pass for Mason Greenwood‘s goal was a particular highlight. Fred got the fifth goal and there was still time for 15 minutes of new signing Jadon Sancho at the end.
He was greeted by the Leeds fans with chants of “you let your country down” after his penalty miss against Italy but when the final whistle went it was Sancho and Solskjaer who were laughing.
There was only a brief moment when it looked like Leeds might spoil the party when Luke Ayling unleashed a rocket past David De Gea to make it 1-1 but Solskjaer will have been thrilled to see his team respond with three goals in eight minutes to put the game beyond Marcelo Bielsa’s men.
It was nearly December by the time United won a home league game last season — a run which Solskjaer says ruined any chance of a realistic title challenge — but this time they have burst out of the blocks.
It could have been a daunting game for an opening weekend against a team regarded as the fittest in the league and with the benefit of a full preseason, but United made it look straight forward.
“You have to enjoy the pressure of playing in front of 75,000 Man United supporters and millions on TV,” said Solskjaer. “I knew they were going to work hard but I wasn’t sure about our fitness levels. Leeds are a high intensity team. The way we worked, that is important and then you can smile towards the end.”
The noise inside Old Trafford went up a notch when Varane walked out onto the pitch moments before kick-off but it was nothing compared to the roar when United went ahead.
Pogba clipped a clever pass towards Fernandes, who took one touch to steady himself and then another to smash his shot with his left foot Leeds goalkeeper Illan Meslier got a big chunk of it but not enough to stop the ball bouncing over the line. It is just the fifth time Fernandes has played in front of a full house at Old Trafford since arriving in January 2020 and he made the most with a knee slide into the corner. The goal capped a first 30 minutes played at a frantic pace with both sides being pushed forward by their supporters.
There was a swell of sound every time either team crossed the halfway line and even a suggestion of contact had referee Paul Tierney being hounded from all sides of the stadium and probably wishing he was back behind closed doors. Fernandes was far more at home in front of the 72,000 fans and after Greenwood had made it 2-1 — just four minutes after Leeds’ equaliser — the Portuguese midfielder scored twice to become the first United player to score a hat trick on the opening day of a league season since Lou Macari against Birmingham in 1977.
Pogba made the first two and also created the goals for Greenwood and Fred to finish his afternoon with four assists and become only the seventh player to accomplish that feat in a single contest. For context, he has managed just three in each of his last two seasons.
“Paul has got that vision and that quality,” said Solskjaer. “I know that the headlines will probably be about Bruno or Paul but this is a team effort.”
In a message to the returning fans in the programme, Ed Woodward wrote that “our objective at Manchester United is always to be competing for the most important trophies with an entertaining, hard-working team comprised of top-class recruits built on a foundation of the best homegrown talent.” It was an afternoon when the plan came together.