It was quite fitting that the Manchester United players left the Amex Stadium wearing masks on Saturday afternoon.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side had committed the footballing version of a robbery. Just when it looked like they’d been brought to justice they had one final trick up their sleeve to make sure they got away with it.
The chaotic final five minutes of this match had a plot from Money Heist, but to depict United as The Professor from the Netflix series, consistently finding ingenious ways to get his crew out of precarious situations, would be to overplay the role they had in this game.
Instead, Brighton hauled themselves to a result they would have felt was the minimum they deserved, only to forget to tighten the handcuffs around their weary opponents.
The 100th-minute penalty converted by Bruno Fernandes, a couple of minutes after referee Chris Kavanagh had actually blown the final whistle, was the craziest finish to a Premier League game you’ll see all season and having got their Premier League campaign up and running there will have been an understandable euphoria amongst United players and staff on the way back north.
But in the cold light of day they cannot let this 3-2 win and the extraordinary ending that delivered it cloud the judgement. United were second best for the second week in a row.
Brighton had 18 shots to United’s seven and seven corners to United’s one. They hit the woodwork five times in all and when Solly March headed home in the 95th minute it looked like some form of justice had been done, until the even later drama.
United have now been outplayed by Crystal Palace and Brighton this season and while they might have three points on the board it’s not the start they would have hoped for.
It was telling that Solskjaer went back to the starting XI that he knows so well here. This team was the same team that took Brighton apart at the Amex back in June, winning 3-0. That came during a run of four successive Premier League victories when United really were red hot. It was also one of five successive league games where Solskjaer named an unchanged side.
But nobody really expected that team to still be the side that was being called on come the end of September. This might be United’s best team right now but it’s also proof that they’ve stood still this summer while their rivals have moved on. There is still time for United to strengthen before the transfer window closes next Monday, but the tick-tock is getting louder for Ed Woodward and Matt Judge.
United’s team selection hadn’t changed in those three months and neither had the style. There was a sense in this game that Brighton had wised up to the threats they posed. Aside from a brief spell at the start of the second half they found it easier to contain United’s thrilling forwards and had far more joy in exposing the back four to one-v-one defending.
With fitness becoming less of an excuse for United it looked like in the previous three months Brighton have progressed while United haven’t. That has to change if this season isn’t to become a grind in front of empty stands in freezing stadiums.
The three points here were an undoubted bonus for United. They might just be the catalyst to kickstart their season. But the performance only served to show that those accusing of United of standing still this summer might be right. To solve that they will almost certainly have to spend this week.