The game was one that was seen as a great chance for Manchester United to return to winning ways following their disappointing defeat at the hands of Basel in the Champions League. For Brighton, it was another chance to test themselves against one of the top sides in England, with the visitors establishing themselves as a very tough team to beat this season.
While Brighton is building a reputation for themselves as a tough nut to crack, they were showing that they can get forward too, as they provided all manner of problems in the first-half. Anthony Knockaert was having a superb day against Ashley Young, giving the England left-back a lot of problems. Despite the fact Brighton had the better of the play, United had the best chance of the first-half, only to see Matt Ryan pulled off a superb double save from Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba.
The second-half started in the same way with Brighton looking good, but United grew into the game and started to dominate. This saw Ashley Young fire a hugely deflected effort in and it proved to be the winner. Despite Brighton looking for an equalizer, it was to be too tall a job for the away side, with United seeing out a much-needed win.
From Manchester United’s victory, what five things did we learn?
Brighton have the better of the opening exchanges
Despite the away side being huge underdogs going into the game, Brighton were not content with sitting deep and giving their hosts a huge amount of respect. In fact, they were the side that was asking the questions as Jose Mourinho’s men were found to be incredibly sluggish off the mark.
Indeed, Anthony Knockaert was in the mood on the flank as he beat Ashley Young time and time again. The revitalized left-back, who has been one of United’s most solid players, was all at sea throughout the first-half as Brighton’s best player was living up to his name.
One of the best chances of the half came as Knockaert was able to easily spin away from Young as he ran in behind the defender, and with time, he decided not to test De Gea, instead of drilling a disappointing ball across goal. Of course, the chance was wasted in the end, but it showed the promise of the away side, with United struggling to keep the newly promoted team at bay.
Manchester United lacking tempo in first half
Considering the way in which Manchester United was beaten in the Champions League in the week, the average fan would have been forgiven for assuming they would see United go into the game looking to dominate, move the ball quickly, and take their chances. However, viewers of the game saw a very different performance from the home side, with an apparent hangover from their 1-0 loss to Basel in the week descending on the side.
Mourinho’s men were so lackluster in the first-half as they struggled to make any kind of positive impact upon the game. In actual fact, they were shown up by their guests, who shaded the first-half in the end. United’s midfield three of Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba and Juan Mata were unable to keep and use the ball in such a way to aid their forwards. In fact, the lack of any kind of tempo from the hosts made it far more easy for Brighton to work opportunities on their right-wing, with the home team’s defense put under far more pressure than it should have been.
United’s difficulties in midfield were summed up by Pogba, who is their most creative player, choosing to shoot from 40-yards out rather than finding a pass. The effort, which was easily blocked, was met by groans from the home fans as their side once again failed to make use of the ball. However, probably fearing the wrath of their manager at half-time, United did improve, and should have scored as Romelu Lukaku’s header was saved by Matt Ryan, who then somehow managed to halt Pogba’s subsequent effort. The moment of magic from Brighton’s goalkeeper denied United’s first real chance, but the fans were left wondering why it had taken 44 minutes for that to happen. However, the fans would probably relax a little more if they knew that 11 of their 27 Premier League goals have come in the final 10 minutes of their games.
Ashley Young and his Jekyll and Hyde day
In the first-half, Young was given the runaround by Brighton and Knockaert as he looked a shadow of the defender that has been diligently patrolling the left-flank for United this season. He was able to grow into the game in the first 45 in an attacking sense as he looked to take the defensive strain off his own shoulders by transferring it onto the opposition.
The second-half seemed to be starting in the same way, with Knockaert once again prominent. However, the home side began to grow into the game as the match wore on, and Brighton found it difficult to get forward as much, with the ball at a premium, and their only real attacks coming from counters.
The pressure United had started to impart was always going to tell eventually, and it did in one of the most fortuitous ways possible. Young decided it was time to channel his days as a forward by firing a speculative shot with his left foot that takes a massive deflection off Lewis Dunk, which looped into the top corner to the delight of Young and the fans.
Ibrahimovic is still vital to Manchester United
In the very biggest games, a side that is chasing a Premier League or Champions League crown needs their best players to stand up and be counted more often than not, while they need their strikers to have a big influence on their games, and they have to be able to take their chances, even if they have just a single site at goal in the game.
Question marks still hang over Romelu Lukaku for this reason. His link-up play is not as good as it should be, with the likes of Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero able to supplement their finishing ability with finesse and intelligence on the ball. United’s striker on the other hand seems to struggle massively when he has to drop in, while he displayed against Liverpool in their 0-0 draw that he does not possess the necessary skill or pace to do the job of a lone striker when his team are sitting very deep, although this is a skill that many top strikers do not have.
Against Brighton, Lukaku struggled to impose himself in a game where his team was poor. While their performance obviously hindered his ability to get on the ball, from a player worth almost nine figures, the fans would probably hope to see some ability to take the game by the scruff of its neck. However, he struggles to do this, and that is why Zlatan Ibrahimovic is so vital to the side.
Ibrahimovic is able to do things that others can’t, while his ability to score the near impossible is sensational. The mercurial Swede did not score against Brighton, but despite his age, he is able to give United a dual attacking threat in both his ability on the ball and finishing, that Lukaku is not yet able to do.
Near but so far for Brighton as United march on
For Brighton, there will be little consolation in their defeat. The fans and players will go away thinking that they did not deserve to lose the game as they battled throughout and shaded the first-half. However, in the Premier League, simply playing well is not enough to always win, and it isn’t always enough to avoid relegation. Along with slick play and chance, creation has to come with goals. Brighton spurned too many good chances in the end as their final ball was left wanting, while their players did not gamble and make runs into the box, with too many crosses flying out.
For United, this is a hugely important win for them. Last year, Mourinho’s men drew far too many tight games against opposition that they would be expected to beat, but that was not the case today. Although they did struggle and they were indebted to a deflected goal, it was a win nonetheless. United will not catch Manchester City if they don’t win their games, and they wouldn’t deserve to, with City currently brushing aside both big and small teams with ease.
At times, it was difficult to see who the home side was as Brighton impressed, but they need to learn how to take their chances, while United will be contented winning a game that would have ended in a draw last season.
Manchester United: De Gea 6 – Valencia 6, Lindelof 6, Smalling 6, Young 6 – Matic 6.5, Pogba 6 – Mata 5 (Ibrahimovic 6), Martial 6 (Mkhitaryan 6), Rashford 6.5 (Fellaini 6) – Lukaku 5.
Unused subs: Romero, Rojo, Herrera, McTominay.
Brighton: Ryan 7 – Bruno 6, Bong 6.5, Dunk 6, Duffy 6 – Stephens 6, Knockaert 7.5, Gross6 (Brown 6), Propper 6, March 6.5 (Izquierdo 6), Murray 6.5 (Hemed 6).
Unused subs: Krul, Kayal, Goldson, Schelotto.
Referee: Neil Swarbrick.