After a victory against Leicester on the opening day of the season, Manchester United sought to dispel any lingering anxieties fans may have had after a rather lacklustre preseason fraught by inactivity on the transfer market and rumours of a strained relationship between manager Jose Mourinho and midfield talisman Paul Pogba.
With both Liverpool and Manchester City running rampant at the beginning of their respective campaigns, Manchester United needed to build up momentum after being handed a relatively kind fixture list for August and September.
Brighton, on the other hand, were looking to bounce back after a disappointing defeat to Watford last week. Chris Hughton will be concerned with his side’s start to the season given their impressive recruitment this summer which included signings such as Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Yves Bissouma.
The next six weeks are less forgiving for Brighton who face Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City between now and the end of September so they went into today’s game looking to take anything from it.
United made three changes from last week’s squad with Ashley Young coming in for Matteo Darmian, Anthony Martial replacing the injured Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku leading the line in favour of Marcus Rashford. After a dominant performance last week, Pogba retained the captaincy.
An injury to Bruno meant a debut for new signing Martin Montoya in one of two changes. The second change saw Gaetan Bong returning to the team to replace Bernardo. Hughton opted for the tried and tested and no-one can blame him given the opposition, but he must be looking to integrate the more attack-minded signings if they are to improve on last season’s miserable goal tally of 34.
United were abysmal in the first half both offensively and defensively while Brighton worked well to exploit United’s weaknesses on the wings. Warning bells sounded early for United as Shaw was continually pulled out of position and Knockaert whipped a ball into the six-yard box in the 3rd minute.
This established a theme for Brighton as they continually exploited United’s poor wing play with Knockaert and March dominating United’s fullbacks.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for United though as Martial looked sharp with a surging, direct run at the Brighton defence from which he won a corner in the 6th minute.
Similarly, Lukaku crafted a half chance for himself in the 10th minute after pressuring Dunk into a loose touch and being played through by Pogba. However, he scuffed his shot to the right of the post in what was one of United’s only clear chances in the first half. Dunk was injured as a result and was replaced by new signing Balogun in the 20th minute.
Brighton continued to threaten on the counterattack as United’s offensive forays frequently broke down due to a lack of creative vision and width. United looked unbalanced with Mata frequently occupying central roles and leaving the right side of the pitch neglected. On the left, Brighton were able to effectively nullify any danger posed by Shaw and Martial through determined defensive work.
A through-ball by Stephens to Knockaert in the 22nd minute split the United defence to provide a half chance although the resulting shot was never going to trouble de Gea.
Brighton broke the deadlock in the 25th minute as Murray deftly flicked in a ball from March on the left. United had been inviting pressure from Brighton’s left wing and as March whipped a low ball into the six yard box, Murray timed his run perfectly to get ahead of Lindelof and put the ball in the back of the net.
United continued to drop deep in the first twenty five minutes and invited pressure from Brighton whose wing play was was proving to be more and more incisive.
Brighton doubled their lead in the 27th minute through Duffy who turned the ball in from the six yard box after a corner. After the United defence failed to clear their lines, Brighton did well to recycle the ball back into the middle and Duffy was quick on his feet and finished very neatly.
This was no more than United deserved as they were weak and indecisive in both attack and defence. Bailey and Lindelof were particularly atrocious showing little to no awareness or vision.
Brighton were neat in possession and effective in the press. Murray and Duffy’s clinical finishes were emblematic of their side’s first half performance which was both dogged and refined.
However, Brighton were punished in the 33rd minute for switching off and failing to clear their lines after a United corner as Lukaku headed in a scuffed shot from Shaw.
More mindless defending from United in the 42nd minute led to a penalty for Brighton. A dangerous, chest-high ball from de Gea to Fred left the Brazilian in no man’s land and he was quickly dispossessed. Neither Bailey nor Lindelof were anywhere near Gross when he latched on to the resulting through ball into the box with Bailey opting to clumsily attempt a tackle which led to the penalty. Gross slotted the penalty away putting Brighton 3-1 up before half-time.
The second half was a much more muted affair. United made two changes at half-time with Rashford replacing Pereira and Lingard coming on for Mata.
Lingard immediately added more width, purpose and energy to United’s attack but United continued to look stagnant while Brighton were content to maintain their lead.
A collective groan of frustration from the red side of Manchester was palpable as Fellaini replaced Martial in the 60th minute. Substitutions such as this demonstrate a real lack of imagination on Mourinho’s part as United quickly transitioned to a long-ball tactic hoping that Fellaini’s aerial prowess would yield some reward.
Brighton were resolute and composed in the second half never affording United the opportunity to break their lines. Brighton’s offensive players, Murray in particular, were also excellent in retaining possession in United’s half when the opportunity arose.
Murray picked up a booking in the 67th minute for a cynical foul on Lindelof.
There was a rare moment of excitement in a drab half of football when an ambitious effort from Pogba in the 75th minute was brilliantly tipped away by Ryan.
Brighton threatened again in the 87th minute as a looping free kick over the top to Stephens in the United box was eventually cut out for a corner.
After a Trojan performances, Gross and Murray were replaced by Kayal and Locadia respectively in the closing minutes.
United were gifted a consolation by Duffy who barged into Fellaini in the 94th minute which led to a penalty. Pogba converted the penalty with the type of purpose and authority the United’s performance lacked in the match.
A turgid performance from United should not take away from a very impressive Brighton who were disciplined and superbly efficient in possession throughout. Despite holding on to their lead for more than 45 minutes, Brighton never sacrificed their style and identity for negative football as they continued to threaten whilst effectively containing what little offensive impetus United showed in the second half.
Hughton be will delighted pick up three points in the midst of a tough opening to the season. On the other hand, one wonders how many more times Mourinho can get away with such an uninspiring performance before serious questions start being asked.