The Reds had been disappointing in midweek away against Basel but had a great opportunity to get back to winning ways against Brighton. The Seagulls made it a battle, but United came out on top thanks to a lucky own goal. It wasn’t a vintage United performance, but they got the three points, keeping pace with City and actually opening up a small gap to some of their rivals.
Mourinho returned to his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, but with a subtle twist in the forward area. De Gea returned to goal, Valencia, Lindelof, Smalling and Young made up the back four. Matic and Pogba again played together in central midfield. Mata and Martial were played wide of Rashford, who played in a sort of 9.5 role, encouraged to get close to Lukaku, who started up front alone. Brighton lined up in a sturdy 4-4-1-1, looking for Murray to hold the ball up, waiting for the midfield to join him.
United started the game with a sense of urgency, playing with pace and going direct when they could. This was demonstrated within the first few minutes, Lukaku and Martial linking up just outside the area, only for the Belgian to spoon the ball into the stands.
But Brighton had the best chances early on. Knockaert went past Young easily, only to hit his cross across the United six-yard box and find no one. Minutes later, he held the ball up against Young, waiting for Bruno to overlap. The full-back shot past him, turned Young who dived in too easily and found Gross on the edge of the area. The German’s shot was weak and easily stopped by De Gea.
Knockaert beat Young every time he went up against him, showing his dribbling ability as well as highlighting that Young is very much a winger playing at fullback. Equally, going the other way, Young went past the Frenchman too. It looked like this would be the danger zone for both sides. Whilst Brighton had a few half chances from amazing crosses from the right, Young was never truly able to find his teammates in the penalty area. A wasted opportunity for United.
The game had started at a ludicrous pace, but by halfway through the first half, it had settled down into a familiar pattern. United were keeping the ball in front of a solid Brighton back ten, looking for a possible gap. For long periods, United created nothing of note, save for a Valencia cross dropped onto Lukaku, who couldn’t get over the ball to direct it goalwards.
The best chance of the half came right at the end of it. The ball was cleared from a United chance and found its way to Rashford. He clipped in a beautiful cross to the back post to again find Lukaku. This time, the Belgian had got above it and headed it down at goal, it looked a certain goal. But the goalkeeper Ryan, like a luminous flying squirrel, flung himself at the ball, halting it on the line. Pogba flicked out at the rebound, but the shot was too weak to cause more problems and Brighton scrambled the ball away.
Straight after halftime, Gross Cruyff-turned Smalling on the left-hand side of the United box, for his cross to find no one. But this half began very differently to the previous one. The Reds pinned Brighton back for long periods, besieging their penalty area. However, they failed to create any clear-cut opportunities. Martial, Rashford and Mata all underperformed, partly due to Brighton’s strong defensive structure, but also due to the way United play.
If anything, Brighton showed the blueprint to beat this United team but were unable to truly pull it off. United don’t play with out and out wingers, preferring to get their width from the full backs. Their nominal wingers, usually Martial and Rashford, like to come inside to link with Lukaku. Brighton packed that area with their midfield, leaving no space for any of the Red’s attacking midfielders. Valencia and Young then push up and wide to create the width. Pogba also feels he needs to get higher up to create chances, leaving massive gaps around the centre-backs. All Brighton had to do was successfully trigger the counter. This was the only part they failed to pull off.
On one of Brighton’s rare breaks forward, Lindelof crunched through Knockaert on the halfway line. This was the Swede’s best performance in a United shirt. He was assured both with and without the ball and seemed to have lost that air of nervousness that has surrounded him this season. However, he only had to deal with Glenn Murray. There will be bigger challenges ahead this season.
The goal came just after the hour, thanks to an own goal from Lewis Dunk. Lukaku chased down March in the penalty area and forced him to flick the ball out for a corner. The corner was cleared, but only as far as Young on the edge of the area. The full-back gained a yard and struck a shot with his left that was actually veering wide. But it struck the outstretched leg of the centre-back, whipping and curling from one corner to another, satisfyingly rolling along the back of the net. It was a lucky strike, but they all count.
United dropped off ever so slightly after the goal, although not quite to the uber-defensive shape we have seen in the past. Between the goal and full time, Brighton had several dangerous crosses and counter-attacks but failed to have any attempts on target. United swapped Martial for Mkhitaryan and later, Rashford for Fellaini, in an attempt to shut up shop.
Zlatan had come on for the anonymous Mata and initially played in the number ten role. With the pace and movement of Martial, Rashford and Lukaku around him, this looks like his ideal position in the line-up. Once United tried to hold the lead, Zlatan went to the number nine position with Lukaku going wide left. This clearly doesn’t suit the Belgian, although he tried his hardest, at one point sprinting forty yards to close down Bruno. The only position Zlatan should play going forward is in the ten role.
A scrappy win for United, but a crucial one. Thanks to the teams below them faltering, United have gained a bit of space. However, there should be a slight worry at the lack of chances The Reds created on the day. They won’t face too many teams who are that solid at the back, but the talent United have in the attacking areas should be creating more. The games are coming thick and fast. Hopefully, they can find that creative spark and crush Watford, before a tough game away at Arsenal.