On a miserable afternoon down by the south coast, Manchester United picked up their first loss of the season at the hands of Brighton & Hove Albion. Worse than the result, however, was the overall performance: first the defence were chaotic to the point of self-parody, then the attack could do little to address the deficit. It’s rare to find a performance without a single positive to be taken, but here United might just have managed it.
Brighton had the better of the early exchanges, moving the ball around neatly and sending a few awkward crosses into the box. United’s central defenders were equal to the early questions, but it was a sign that the home side, having beaten United at home late last season, were in the mood to repeat the trick.
The first proper chance fell to United. As Brighton dithered at the back, Romelu Lukaku robbed Lewis Dunk, then ran into the space behind the snoozing defender. Pogba poked the ball back to the Belgian, who attempted to scam the goalkeeper, shaping to shoot to the far post before chopping the ball back towards the near. Sadly, he over-chopped.
The home side took heed of the warning and dropped a little deeper, allowing United to take control of possession. But United advancing forward just left space in behind, and Brighton looked more than happy to play on the break. One long ball found Antony Knockaert free in behind, having drifted untroubled between Luke Shaw and Victor Lindelöf, but he pulled his shot wide.
United ignored their warning. As the first quarter of the game ticked past, a quick pass out wide found space in behind Ashley Young, and Eric Bailly moved over to cover. This left a hole in United’s defence, and as the cross came along the six-yard line, Glenn Murray reacted quicker than either Victor Lindelöf or Andreas Pereira. His deft touch took the ball over David de Gea’s shoulder, and the home side had the lead.
And then a couple of minutes, a corner, and some hideous pinball later, they’d doubled it.
A set piece got United back in touch. Young won himself a corner on the right and then skimmed a flat ball towards Lindelöf. He couldn’t win his header cleanly, but Shaw fired the ball back into the middle and it looped, via a convenient deflection, onto Lukaku’s forehead. He made no mistake from close range.
At a time of speculation over Mourinho’s bond with his players, it was heartening to see the defence trying their best to prove United’s manager right in his belief that they are all useless idiots. This time it was Bailly, who responded to a moment of panic in the box by flinging himself through Pascal Gross. The German picked himself up and stuck the penalty straight down the middle, and De Gea’s foot could only send it into the roof of the net.
So that was half-time: the defence looking punchdrunk, the midfield fearful and tentative, and Juan Mata and Anthony Martial almost gaseous on the flanks. Probably a blessing that United aren’t filming a documentary.
The incorporeal Mata and Andreas Pereira paid the price, withdrawn for Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard. But United started the second period with the same air of chaos as they’d ended the first: the stands hadn’t even filled back up when Bailly had to scramble clear on the edge of his own box.
Marouane Fellaini joined the party on the hour mark, on for Martial, a move that might be deemed a little negative had Martial shown anything positive. And say what you like about the big man, but he does put the wind up defenders. A long ball onto Fellaini’s chest precipitated the first real moment of chaos around the Brighton box, though it ended when Shaw’s miscued shot found the feet of Lukaku, who was returning from an offside position.
But Brighton soon found their equanimity again, helped by a steady supply of misplaced passes, awkward tackles, and thoughtless, witless football by their obliging guests. Pressure was sporadic, moves fell apart before they came together, and even when Pogba got frustrated enough to lash one goalwards from 25 yards, Mathew Ryan was equal to it.
Once upon a time, a late United deficit meant a late United siege. Here, they could muster nothing much above some polite door-knocking, comfortably ignored by Brighton’s solid, calm defence. Well, mostly calm: Shane Duffy gave away a silly penalty deep into injury time, and Pogba pinged it home. There was no time to win another one.
There have been a few truly appalling performances in the years since Alex Ferguson left the club. Some have come in significantly more important games than this one. But there can’t have been many quite as universally shambolic as this one. None of the starting XI played well. Most of them fell some distance short of competent. And a few of them were remarkably shambolic.
You can’t win a league title in the second week of a season. But you can take a first step towards losing one, and you can take several huge leaps towards a crisis. After a strange last season and fractious summer, the last thing United needed was an early embarrassment. But they got one here, and while Brighton took advantage in professional fashion, United earned it all by themselves.
Whoever’s to blame, the fallout will be messy. And if somebody doesn’t come up with a solution quick, Monday’s game against Tottenham could be an absolute horrorshow. To say nothing of the rest of the season. United were exposed badly by a well-coached, well-organised side, and there’s more than a few of those in the Premier League.