Pascal Gross double ruins Ten Hag’s Old Trafford bow

Pascal Gross netted a first-half brace to inspire Brighton to a deserved 2-1 win over Manchester United and ruin Erik ten Hag’s maiden Premier League outing.

Ten Hag named Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench at Old Trafford and his players were left floundering by Gross’ close-range expertise as the German midfielder took his career tally against United to six. A scrappy own-goal from Alexis MacAllister reduced the arrears but, even with Ronaldo on the field as a second-half substitute, the sort of late rally often synonymous with United on their home ground never materialized.

The Seagulls follow the torpor at Old Trafford

“Let’s give Brighton some credit before criticizing Manchester United,” Roy Keane said on Sky Sports at half-time, before immediately speaking in scathing terms about his old club. And that’s what probably hurts the most for United today: it’s all so familiar. There were shades of Louis van Gaal’s debut defeat to Swansea City in 2013, which followed a preseason of hope, renewal and optimism. At least everyone is a little bit longer in the tooth now.

Keane’s sentiment was correct. On paper, this is the 20-time champions of England losing to a team that has traditionally resided a good distance away from the top division. But Brighton are a problem for anyone on their day. When Pep Guardiola refers to them as “A Graham Potter team” it speaks volumes of the esteem in which the Albion boss is held by his most celebrated colleagues.

Brighton had a look at the puzzle they had to solve for the first 10 minutes or so, then proceeded to take United to the cleaners, with each delicate pass, turn and switch of play pricking at wounds that have understandably not healed after United’s dire 2021/22.

Reality check for Ten Hag

Potter reverted to a back three in Brighton’s final preseason friendly and stuck with that ploy to fine effect here, mitigating against the effect of losing Marc Cucurella for blockbusting money. A couple of seasons of calm, clear management and a defined footballing identity means such switches can be applied with minimal turbulence. Ten Hag is cut from a similar cloth in terms of football philosophy, but he will need to give a still-imbalanced United squad time to catch up with his vision.

Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen operating as roving central attackers was right out of the Cruyffian playbook but it also represented a departure from the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations United had deployed throughout preseason. The logic was sound enough — stretch the three-man Brighton defense with Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford pegged wide — and it led to Fernandes’ early chance. But once Albion had them on the run, United did not have any fundamentals of this style to fall back on and they crumbled.

The end of McFred?

Scott McTominay and Fred playing in tandem has unfairly become a symbol of United’s recent decline. If anyone else had done any better than those two in central midfield, they’d be playing there. Instead, Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba left at the end of their contracts, so Ten Hag’s midfield selection on Sunday was in part an exercise in necessity. The summer-long pursuit of Frenkie de Jong, who remains embroiled in Barcelona’s Mes Que Un Bitcoin psychodrama, looks likely to come to nought.

But United desperately need some reinforcements. Fred was the deeper of the two and was errant in possession in front of the back four as Brighton turned the action in their favour during the early stages, while McTominay’s capacity to discomfort the opposition was nullified by a yellow card for a challenge on the excellent Moises Caicedo that could easily have been a red. As impressive as Brighton’s second goal was, such a move does not simply meander through a structurally sound midfield. In the remaining three weeks of the transfer window, it is the area of weakness United must address.

Manchester United vs. Brighton final score

1H 2H Final
Manchester United 0 1 1
Brighton 2 0 2

Goals:

BRI — GROSS (WELBECK) — 30th min

BRI — GROSS (MARCH) — 39th min

MUN — MACALLISTER (OG) — 68th min

It might have been a very different story had Bruno Fernandes converted a golden seventh-minute opportunity but he blazed over from inside the box.

From that point, Brighton started to dictate terms, making light of losing key men Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella in the summer transfer market. Danny Welbeck was a thorn in his former club’s side throughout and his clever run and cross led to Gross’ 30th-minute opener.

Graham Potter’s side then produced a fluid move in their manager’s image from their own goalline, leaving United chasing shadows before David de Gea saved from Solly March. He could only push the wing-back’s shot into Gross’ path for another simple finish.

Ronaldo’s emergence in place of Fred shortly after half-time lifted the volume at Old Trafford and the five-time Ballon d’Or winner crossed to give Rashford a glorious opportunity after the hour. David Sanchez’s save was magnificent, but the fact he even had a chance spoke of a player whose confidence remains on the floor.

Sanchez erred to let United back into the match, failing to claim a left-wing corner. Diogo Dalot scrambled goalwards and the prone Brighton keeper could only touch the ball against MacAllister’s leg before it trickled over the line.

Lewis Dunk produced a heroic sliding block to thwart United debutant Lisandro Martinez three minutes from time but that was something of an isolated incident as Brighton saw out victory in relative comfort, with their new-look hosts floundering for ideas.

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