The 31-game streak of home victories for Manchester United without a loss came to an end on Saturday when Brighton thrashed them 3-1, adding to the myriad of problems at Old Trafford.
After 20 minutes, which United had controlled thanks to Erik ten Hag’s new arrangement, Danny Welbeck returned to haunt the Red Devils for the fifth time, breaking the score. Another persistent troublemaker, Pascal Gross, extended Brighton’s advantage in the second half. Then, Seagulls substitute Joao Pedro hammered home a beautiful third goal, and Hannibal Mejbri scored an incredible late consolation.
The Red Devils were seeking revenge for their humiliating 3-1 loss to Arsenal away from home a fortnight prior, and the atmosphere at Old Trafford was dampened by a variety of issues off the pitch. Famous Brighton manager Roberto de Zerbi was missing the always dependable Solly March and was forced to start recent hat-trick hero Evan Ferguson off the bench due to injury, while Jadon Sancho and Antony were both benched by United during the tumultuous international break.
Seven talking points from Old Trafford are listed here.
Ten Hag’s modification
The Red Devils have lined up in a 4-2-3-1 configuration, which is Erik ten Hag’s favourite set up, for nearly all 66 of his previous matches in charge of Manchester United. However, when Brighton came to town, that all changed because Ten Hag saw the need for a change after losing to the Seagulls in the FA Cup semifinal and both Premier League meetings last season.
The manager of the Red Devils decided to play a midfield diamond, which he had previously mentioned in the pre-game press conference that he had intended to use against Arsenal two weeks prior before McTominay withdrew. But since the Scotland international was available, Casemiro was allowed to play as the lone sitting midfielder while Christian Eriksen and Fernandes were further advanced like McTominay.
With United fullbacks Diogo Dalot and Sergio Reguilon allowed greater room to run into down the flanks and Marcus Rashford creating issues alongside Rasmus Hojlind in the penalty area, Ten Hag’s change of formation immediately confused Brighton. After just nine minutes, the latter came dangerously close to opening the scoring by sliding in just a hair too late to connect with Rashford’s low cross.
Welbeck returns to haunt United
Welbeck has a penchant for it; few, if any, former United players have managed to score five goals against the Red Devils after leaving Old Trafford. The Manchester striker, who Louis van Gaal let go in the summer of 2014, made history by scoring on his first visit back to Old Trafford while playing for Arsenal. He has since scored three times for Brighton.
After a strong start, Welbeck’s most recent dagger was too simple from United’s standpoint. The 32-year-old began the movement in the middle of the pitch, putting the Red Devils on the back foot, and eventually sent the ball to winger Simon Adingra. Adam Lallana, a former midfielder for Liverpool, then deftly leaped over Adingra’s cross to give Welbeck a tap-in.
For United fans, it was déjà vu in another aspect in addition to witnessing their academy product spin away in joy. In their most recent home game, the Red Devils fell behind early to Nottingham Forest before pulling off a victory. But at least they weren’t already down 2-0.
With five minutes to go until half-time, United were in need of some predatory instinct to make their possession in Brighton’s half count. Step forward, Hojlund. The £72million man, recruited to be the poacher who the Red Devils so often lack, lurked at far post while Rashford skinned Jan Paul van Hecke twice and couldn’t miss once the ball fell his way.
Unfortunately for Hojlund, VAR deemed that the ball had gone out before Rashford’s delivery, meaning that the Dane’s home debut goal was ruled out. Brighton, typically cool on the ball, then saw the half out and looked on course to become the first side to win at Old Trafford since… themselves on the opening day last season. A hum of boos rang out as the half-time whistle sounded.
Gross goal to concede
As if deja vu wasn’t enough at Old Trafford after Welbeck’s goal, Pascal Gross continued his stellar record by scoring again versus United. After scoring twice in the season opening described earlier in August 2022, the German midfielder struck once more to avenge even worse Red Devils defence.
Kaoru Mitoma and Tariq Lamptey combined on the left side as Gross walked into the box as United kept possession in its final third. The Red Devils’ center-back Lisandro Martinez slid in and completely missed his attempt to win back possession after the former 32-year-old allowed the ball to cross his body after Lamptey’s pass, freeing up Gross for a shot at goal that flew past the outstretched Andre Onana along the ground and nestled into the bottom corner.
Now, for the first time in more than a year, United was actually in danger of suffering a loss at Old Trafford.
Critics boo Ten Hag
One significant benefit of Ten Hag’s rule has been the rekindled relationship between team and supporters, in addition to bettering results and establishing his authority in what was previously thought to be a dysfunctional dressing room. Supporters have generally supported the Dutch manager’s decisions, but when he substituted Hojlund for Anthony Martial, those inside Old Trafford angrily objected.
Major jeers erupted as the out-of-sorts Martial replaced the Danish wonderkid, and Casemiro was also substituted for the youngster Hannibal Mejbri. Having played 180 minutes for Brazil before the interval, the Brazilian appeared exhausted once more in the second half.
Hope gradually vanished for Hannibal
Joao Pedro’s magnificent goal to make it 3-0 after coming off the bench stunned Old Trafford, but Mejbri swiftly worked his own kind of magic to make the final minutes competitive. The Red Devils were given a chance by the Tunisian international, who also jolted Old Trafford back into action as the crowd rallied to United’s players.
Mejbri sent a right-footed shot past Jason Steele in front of the Stretford End after taking aim from well outside the penalty area. But Steele and company remained strong in the closing seconds, winning a noteworthy three points and inflicting further suffering on United.
Following a streak of outstanding performances both at home and away, Brighton has won their previous four Premier League matches against Manchester United and can confidently claim to have the Red Devils’ number. Although his team was fortunate to avoid losing for more than 120 minutes in April’s shootout triumph at Wembley, Ten Hag still cannot strategically match De Zerbi.
The next Champions League match for United is a quick journey to Bayern Munich, where supporters might be more excited to take in the local Oktoberfest festivities. Brighton will host AEK Athens in the Europa League.