Manchester United struck lucky at newly-promoted Brentford in Wednesday’s Premier League clash, running out 3-1 winners courtesy of second half goals from Anthony Elanga, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford. It was another lacklustre performance from Ralf Rangnick’s men, particularly in the first half, and they were lucky to avoid being two or three down by halftime.
Ever since his appointment as United manager, Rangnick has made a point of emphasising the centrality of ‘intensity’ to his footballing blueprint. But intensity will only get you so far when you’re fielding players lacking technical ability and tactical intelligence. Throughout the first half, United were poor across the pitch: unable to control the ball in tight spaces, frequently gifting it to their opponents, and leaving themselves wide open in defence.
The Bees swarmed all over United’s midfield, such that they often seemed to have more players on the pitch. Thomas Frank’s side created a string of clear-cut chances in the first half, with David de Gea twice denying Mathias Jensen in one-on-ones. His compatriots Mads Bech and Christian Nørgaard both had half-chances, but the former was well-blocked by Victor Lindelöf, and the latter whistled narrowly over the crossbar.
At the other end of the pitch, Brentford keeper Jonas Lössl could have unfolded a deckchair. United failed to register a single shot on target in the first half, going closest with a speculative long-range effort by Diogo Dalot. It was a shockingly poor first half display, and Rangnick could hardly hide his frustration on the touchline.
The second half began with a looping Cristiano Ronaldo header that bounced off the top of the Brentford bar, swiftly followed by a quick Bees counter-attack in which Jensen drew another save from de Gea.
In the end, however, Brentford were made to pay for their profligacy. Tiring after their first half exertions, Frank’s side sunk ever deeper towards their own goal. Five minutes before the hour, Fred found enough space to thread a fine pass between the Bees’ centre-halves, which an onrushing Anthony Elanga cushioned with the outside of his boot before nodding past Lössl for 1-0. United’s very first shot on target ended up in the back of the net.
Within a few minutes, United were two up. Cristiano Ronaldo chested a chipped Scot McTominay pass beyond the Brentford defence for an onrushing Bruno Fernandes, who surged through on Lössl’s goal. However, instead of pulling the trigger, he squared unselfishly for Mason Greenwood, who slotted into an empty net. Having squandered a hatful of gilt-edged chances, Brentford could only have themselves to blame.
With the two-goal cushion, Rangnick moved to protect United’s lead. He withdrew Ronaldo — who marked the substitution in characteristic fashion, throwing a strop on the touchline — and introduced Harry Maguire in his stead. United shuffled into a back three, with Maguire and Lindelöf sitting either side of Raphaël Varane, and Alex Telles and Dalot pushing up into wing-back roles.
Substitute Marcus Rashford added a third with just over 10 minutes left. McTominay battled well in midfield, winning possession and offloading to Fernandes. Rashford overlapped on the right, receiving the ball and lashing into the roof of the net. But Brentford weren’t quite dead and buried.
With just over five minutes remaining, a long-throw wreaked havoc in the United box, bouncing loose before being stabbed into a penalty area melee by Ethan Pinnock. Ivan Toney reacted first, bundling the ball past De Gea from point-blank range. It proved nothing more than a consolation, but was the least the Bees deserved.