Sun. Oct 25th, 2020

Man Utd

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Manchester United win at Brighton poses more questions than it answers

4 min read

Manchester United got what they deserved. They invited pressure onto themselves, Brighton levelled in added time and everyone heard the full-time shrill. Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You’ played, staff exchanged fist bumps and some were already down the tunnel.

But the game had not finished. Harry Maguire was adamant his header had been handled on the line by Neal Maupay and a game that had finished had to restart. Maupay had handled the ball.

With one kick between a draw and a victory for United, Bruno Fernandes approached the ball in the 100th minute and caressed it into the top corner. The whistle blew – this time for the final time.

Fernandes has appeared fatigued in recent months and cannot get much respite at home with a newborn son to care for. The Portuguese has been a ‘moments’ player since United’s last truly emphatic victory at Aston Villa on July 9 and that continued at the Amex Stadium, where he atoned for gifting Brighton a penalty to create two of United’s goals and claim the decider. Without him, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may be back in Molde.

What a moment Fernandes’ perceptive pass was for Marcus Rashford, jolted by the vision of his teammate into finishing a swift counter-attack. Rashford had hitherto been operating at the pace of an exhibition match and his form is still troublesome, despite a flattering two goals in his last two matches. He is far from the only United player operating at such a lethargic level.

So in a set of circumstances more remarkable than the intervention of the Video Assistant Referee in Paris, United’s winning formula procured a win. Solskjaer reverted to his ‘first XI’ that served him so superbly in the denouement to last season but its return at the start of this season poses more questions than it answers.

Solskjaer bristled at the suggestion United had stood still with their summer activity though he rather proved the point by naming the same team that walked out at Brighton on June 30. He named that side in five league matches running until the regulars tired and Solskjaer discovered he distrusted the majority in reserve. United’s performance was endemic of a club that is rife with complacency at boardroom level.

They did not remotely resemble a team that played with the same personnel and in the same formation that won so convincingly at the same stadium 87 days earlier. Brighton, with their strapping back three and probing wing-backs, thrived with Leandro Trossard playing in the hole behind Neal Maupay and Aaron Connolly, and the Belgian claimed a unique hat-trick of hitting the woodwork three times.

For Brighton, the final score was a travesty. United’s goal led such a charmed life their hosts struck the woodwork five times and were awarded two penalties – one overturned. Few sides will enjoy such dominant spells against United as Brighton did in the first-half and they were the more accomplished team in the second.

Rashford and Mason Greenwood had goals chalked off for offside that stemmed from breakaways rather than controlled spells. United were dependent on set-pieces and counter-attacks and reservations over the performance were reflected by defensive-minded substitutions at 2-1. That backfired when Solly March levelled to seemingly earn Brighton a draw.

Perhaps the only recognisable aspect of United, other than the odd counter, was they played without abandon from the final kick-off. Solskjaer said on Friday United have underused Maguire’s presence at set-pieces and his impact was imperative at the end of both halves, first with the equaliser that salvaged a dismal first-half performance.

The victory will hardly quell the clamour for reinforcements and the list of required ‘ins’ at United is growing at a faster rate than the club’s bean-counters had calculated. Odion Ighalo, largely redundant since football’s hiatus ended, did not make a United Premier League squad for the first time, Brandon Williams did not travel and Daniel James was cut from the 18. It is not a coincidence United are in the market for a striker, a left-back and a right winger yet all roles could realistically remain vacant come Monday week’s international transfer deadline.

Centre-back is another pressing issue. Replacing Victor Lindelof with Eric Bailly would arguably represent a step backwards though Solskjaer’s Scandinavian solidarity with Lindelof, meek against Crystal Palace, is bordering on nepotism. Lindelof started again and Fernandes and Paul Pogba found themselves in their own area amid the porous defending. Fernandes was not reprieved but Pogba was by the VAR.

Pogba spoke at length to Aaron Wan-Bissaka prior to the first whistle and whatever his message was it did not register. Wan-Bissaka, again, approached the final third as though it was a minefield and his unwillingness to attack was countered by Tariq Lamptey on the opposite side, who earned Brighton’s penalty after Wan-Bissaka ceded possession.

Lamptey, formerly of Chelsea, cost Brighton £3million and is comfortably a superior attacker than the £50m Wan-Bissaka. You have to wonder who exactly made the United recruitment department’s infamous mile-long list of 804 right-backs before they whittled it down to the obvious option. 

Maguire let rip at the referee and his assistant for carding Fernandes and his frustration was as much at United’s sloppiness as the officiatring. He continued to holler, at his teammates and, most significantly, the officials. Sian Massey-Ellis erroneously kept her flag down when Rashford was offside and was dormant when Maupay raised his hand. Maguire was adamant and confronted the referee Chris Kavanagh while others attempted to declare the match a draw.

United have lacked that confrontational streak that Maguire brings and he was worthy of the armband in his protestations. But Fernandes will get the praise.

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