Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Valencia, Lindelof, Smalling, Young; Pogba, Matic; Rashford, Mata, Martial; Lukaku
Brighton & Hove Albion (4-2-3-1): Ryan; Bruno, Duffy, Dunk, Bong; Propper, Stephens; Knockaert, Gross, March; Murray
Manchester United named an unchanged lineup from the team that beat Newcastle 4-1 the previous weekend. This meant the Victor Lindelof started his second league game in a row alongside Chris Smalling, as did Paul Pogba, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan returned to the squad after two games out of it.
Brighton started as expected, Bruno captaining the side from right-back, while veteran Glenn Murray led the line ahead of Solly March, Pascal Gross and Anthony Knockaert.
Major tactical themes:
United devoid of creativity
Jose Mourinho started with an extremely attacking side, the same one which took to the field against Newcastle. However, in a contrast from that game, United struggled to break down a hardworking, compact Brighton side. This was exacerbated by Mourinho’s formation choice; while it looked like Mata would play as the #10, with Martial and Rashford either side of him, the Spaniard was actually on the right, with Martial left and Rashford playing alongside Lukaku. This meant that United didn’t have numbers centrally; Pogba and Matic often having nobody to pass to in a central area ahead of them. Another issue was a lack of width; Martial and Mata both looked to come inside, making it easy for Brighton to defend in a low block. It would have made a massive difference if the wingers had stayed wide, stretching the Brighton defensive line and creating gaps that could have been exploited. Starting a number of attacking players does not equate to an attacking display, as Mourinho alluded to after the game, and he needs to work on a stable approach which retains control while affording enough attacking freedom to his forwards.
Brighton threaten on the counter
That lack of control meant that Brighton had a number of very good counter-attacking opportunities, in both halves of the game. Davy Propper and Dale Stephens would sit in front of the defence, creating a solid block that United found difficult to play through, before playing accurate passes out to the flanks, where Knockaert and March had enough pace to match the United fullbacks. Pascal Gross would also drift to wider areas, especially on the right, which allowed Brighton to get down the wing quickly through a couple of passes, before sending in a cross. Knockaert and Gross sent in a couple of dangerous crosses from the right, flashing across De Gea’s six-yard box, as did Bruno after storming forward from right-back. Towards the end of the game, with Zlatan on the pitch and Rashford and Martial having being taken off, Lukaku was playing wide left, tackling Bruno on at least two occasions as he tried to get up the wing. Brighton prospered down the flanks, due to United’s lack of control in midfield and the advanced positioning of their fullbacks, and only the lack of a better or more nimble alternative to Glenn Murray prevented them from capitalising.
Eric Bailly and Phil Jones’ injury-enforced absences meant that Lindelof started consecutive league games for the first time for United. Marcos Rojo’s excellent performance in midweek against Basel may have galvanised the Swede; this was his best game for United so far. He was excellent at reading the game, stepping in and nicking the ball off Murray on a number of occasions, while his passing was good as well. Lindelof frequently stepped into midfield, where he did not look out of place, and he played a couple of good balls out to the flanks to his onrushing fullbacks. A no-nonsense tackle on Anthony Knockaert near the halfway line drew the biggest cheer of the night from the Stretford End, and it may just prove to be the turning point in what has been an uncertain start to his United career.