Greenwood is back
It was fitting that Mason Greenwood was the man to dig Manchester United out of trouble against Brighton, given the 19-year-old had looked the most threatening of the forwards all night.
Marcus Rashford got the equaliser but the chances were generally falling to Greenwood, who looked lively throughout and was unlucky not to score with a clever effort early in the game when he struck the post with his right-foot.
His winning goal was an instinctive diving header from Paul Pogba’s scuffed shot and a due reward for another promising performance.
Greenwood got a vote of confidence from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before the FA Cup quarter-final at Leicester City, when he was on a run of one goal in 26 games, and his manager’s faith has been repaid.
Solskjaer was insistent the stats didn’t paint a full picture and since then Greenwood has scored in successive games. His all-round game has improved this season and now he looks to have his eye for goal back as well.
That could be a considerable boost for United with Anthony Martial set to be sidelined for a while and Edinson Cavani unconvincing on Sunday night. Greenwood is certainly making a case once again to be given a chance as a striker for United and it’s looking increasingly like they’re going to need one soon.
It was noticeable in the first half of this game how well structured everything Brighton were trying to do was, compared to the reliance on individuals that so often characterises United’s play.
Every time the Seagulls attacked the man on the ball had runners creating angles to give him options for a pass and United’s defence was pulled around by an inventive side. More impressively, they managed to attack in numbers as well as get back and defend with two strong, compact units.
United’s reliance on individuals, especially Bruno Fernandes, is nothing new, but too often they go through games where there is a lack of ideas and vision of how to open teams up without a moment of magic. It was no surprise the equaliser came from a turnover in possession and a smart pass from Fernandes.
Not all the blame for United’s lack of structure in attacking play should be placed at the door of Solskjaer. He has brought about improvement in players during his time at the club and his man-management has consistently been good.
His coaches must also contribute to creating a cohesive attacking unit, but at the moment United have too many games where that isn’t the case. They don’t have the fluidity in attack that can characterise other top teams, instead relying on the pace on the break and that individual quality.
Pressure for Henderson
Having spent his entire professional career chasing the dream of being United’s No.1, this was the day Dean Henderson would have finally felt he had achieved that goal.
Solskjaer might have said he had ‘”two No.1s” before kick-off but that thinking isn’t sustainable. Henderson’s ascension would have meant a shift in mindset, from the challenger laying down his claim to the man in possession of the jersey, which brings a new kind of pressure.
There were signs of nerves with a couple of unconvincing corners swung into his six-yard box and it wasn’t the first time this season teams have looked to target Henderson with set-pieces delivered on top of him in a crowded area.
He was very unlucky with Danny Welbeck’s opener, however, using his feet to make a fine reaction save only for the former United striker to convert the rebound.
It will be no surprise to see De Gea back in the side to face Granada on Thursday, but this signalled a changing of the guard in goal for United and while Henderson will be tested in new ways now, he deserves a sustained run to make his mark.
There was some minor consternation amongst United fans when Aaron Wan-Bissaka was overlooked for the England squad for the international break, but the reality is he’s not really close to selection in what is a competitive area.
His passing and contributions going forward aren’t sharp enough yet and while his one-on-one defending is world-class he has a weakness defending his back post when crosses come in from the other side.
That’s a major area for a full-back and it was something Gareth Southgate mentioned as an improvement in Luke Shaw’s game during the international window.
Too often Wan-Bissaka is flat-footed and not aware of his surroundings. Danny Welbeck played on that to open the scoring for Brighton.
It’s taken Harry Maguire less than two full seasons at United to bring up a century of appearances and if this campaign ends in a Europa League final it’s entirely likely he’ll be at 113 games by the time the shutters come down on 2020/21.
Maguire has played in 100 of United’s 109 games since he signed and he was promoted to captain halfway through his first season. He has his critics, largely as a result of the £80million price tag, but he is clearly a very trusted lieutenant for Solskjaer.
The 28-year-old hardly ever gets a rest and his form has improved as this season has progressed, after what was a pretty traumatic summer on a personal level. He certainly got a test against a lively Brighton side and made one swift interception to deny Neal Maupay late in the first half.
It says plenty about Maguire’s durability that he’s achieved this milestone in less than two seasons and he’s now level on 100 appearances with Eric Bailly, who joined the club three years earlier, at a time when Maguire hadn’t even signed for Leicester City. Bailly’s absence at the moment is something of a mystery and it would be a risk to give him a new deal. Luckily Maguire’s durability gives United a little more freedom with that decision.