Manchester United host Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday after an up-and-down week for the club. José Mourinho’s men came roaring out of the international break with a dominating 4-1 victory over Newcastle, reminding everyone how ruthlessly effective this team can be when healthy. That newfound optimism, though, did not survive the midweek trip to Switzerland as United lost 1-0 to F.C. Basel in their penultimate Champions League Group A match.
Playing at home on Saturday should make a big difference. United have run rampant at Old Trafford so far this season. In nine home matches across all competitions, the Red Devils have won them all, allowing only two goals en route to a dazzling +24 differential. Any title challenge rests upon a bedrock of home-field dominance and that must continue against Premier League newcomers Brighton.
Widely tipped for relegation during the preseason, Brighton & Hove Albion have instead adjusted quite nicely to life in the top-flight. Chris Hughton managed to instill a hard-working ethos in his squad, making up for a lack of show-stopping talent with tireless running and scrappy play in front of goal. It’s paid off so far, with the Seagulls sitting comfortably in ninth place on 16 points.
Brighton are unbeaten in their last five league matches and enter Saturday’s contest fresh off a spirited draw with Stoke City. Twice the Potters took the lead, only to be pegged back by goals from Jose Izquierdo and Pascal Gross. Izquierdo, the club’s record signing at £13.5 million, has two goals to his name this season and combines well with forward Glenn Murray.
Nonetheless, Hughton’s Brighton earn their points with an industrious work rate and stingy defense. On Saturday, that backline will be tested by a Manchester United attack that looks rejuvenated by Paul Pogba’s return. Last weekend, Pogba chipped in with a goal and an assist as the men in red cruised past Newcastle. Even in Wednesday’s Basel defeat, United should have put the match away during a dominating first half in which they hit the woodwork twice.
With Pogba finally back — and seeming not to have missed a beat — hopes are high that the free-scoring Manchester United of August will return too. In particular, the homegrown Frenchman brings an impetus to the squad’s midfield that had been sorely lacking in his absence.
For United to hit those early-season highs again, Romelu Lukaku must find his goalscoring form — and, thankfully, he’s starting to show signs of just that. After two goals for Belgium during the international break, he capped off the win over Newcastle with the fourth and final tally of the day. His recent misfires in front of goal only magnified the club’s struggles. How different would everything look if Lukaku had clinically finished off his one-on-one chance late in the first half at Anfield?
Zlatan Ibrahimović’s return from a torn ACL should also take the pressure off Big Rom. Whether they can play up front together or not — and Mourinho insists they can — it at least gives the manager an option to rotate the two and give Lukaku a well-deserved rest.
The future might look bright on offense, but United’s defense continues to be plagued by injury. The shocking return of Pogba and Zlatan was tempered somewhat by the revelation that Eric Bailly would miss time with an undisclosed ailment. And Phil Jones remains out of action since re-aggravating his thigh on England duty.
With Mourinho’s first-choice central defense knocked out, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelöf were pressed into action against Newcastle. Lindelöf started shakily, losing his feet for Dwight Gayle’s opener, but regained his composure and settled down in the second half.
Reports claim that Phil Jones will miss out again on Saturday, meaning all eyes now turn to newly-recovered Marcos Rojo. After a spot on the bench last weekend, he played the full ninety minutes in Switzerland. It’s probably a bridge too far to expect Rojo to feature again versus Brighton with so little rest after his first appearance back. Still, Mourinho praised the Argentinian defender for his play midweek: “Rojo played very well. He controlled very well his game, so I’m really happy.”
No amount of Manchester United injuries or unrest should change the outlook for Saturday. When fighting for a Premier League title, there can be no slip-ups at home against newly-promoted sides. Brighton has not lost in five matches — and United cannot allow that streak to reach six. Put Brighton to the sword, collect three points, and keep the pressure on Manchester City.