As a wise man once said, you can lead Fred to water, but you can’t make him an elite Premier League midfielder. Manchester United’s new era got off to a stuttering start on Sunday, as they ushered in the new Premier League season with a 2-1 defeat to the impressive Brighton & Hove Albion.
Erik ten Hag named an experimental lineup for his first competitive match, with Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes each taking turns to occupy the centre-forward position in a fluid front four. But no amount of tinkering was able to make up for the deficiencies deeper in United’s midfield, and both Fred and Scott McTominay struggled to get to grips with a well-drilled and energetic Brighton midfield.
The writing was on the wall in the first twenty seconds, when a sloppy giveaway by Diogo Dalot allowed Leandro Trossard to lash a fierce volley into David de Gea’s side-netting. United’s best chance followed minutes later, when a blocked McTominay shot ricocheted to Bruno Fernandes on the edge of the penalty area, though he fired over the crossbar.
From there, it was nearly all Brighton. Fred soon gifted possession to Trossard in the United box, though recovered to make a last-ditch tackle. The Seagulls prodded and probed, with a sequence of near-misses and late defensive interventions keeping a creaking United just about afloat.
Fred struggled as the deepest midfielder in United’s midfield, and whenever he dropped deep to receive possession, he was hassled and harangued by Graham Potter’s boundlessly industrious charges. Brighton’s organisation ensured that United struggled to advance beyond the halfway line, and the Reds’ only other first-half chance came when a quick free-kick opened up space for Christian Eriksen, but the Dane’s tame chip landed in the arms of goalkeeper Robert Sánchez.
The opening goal came just past the half-hour, when the excellent Trossard sent erstwhile United forward Danny Welbeck in behind Harry Maguire. He pulled the ball back across the box, where it was converted at the back post by the onrushing Pascal Groß.
The German doubled Brighton’s lead less than 10 minutes later. The visitors breezed down United’s left and stroked the ball through midfield to right wing-back Solly March. He cut infield and drove a low shot at de Gea, whose low parry was tucked home by Groß under pressure—albeit not enough—from Fred.
Ten Hag resisted the urge to make halftime substitutions, and the second half got off to a lively opening. Welbeck nodded a Trossard cross wide of the near post, seconds before a dangerous Eriksen cross flashed past Rashford at Brighton’s back stick. It took less than six minutes, however, before the United boss ordered Cristiano Ronaldo to ready himself for action, and he was promptly introduced in place of Fred.
United eventually began to seize control, and Marcus Rashford might have done better when he volleyed a Bruno Fernandes cross wide of the target. A low Eriksen shot from the edge of the box was destined for the bottom corner, but Sánchez scrambled across to make a fine save.
The hosts made their breakthrough on the subsequent corner. The otherwise impressive Sánchez misjudged the flight of the ball, which hit Dalot’s arm and landed perilously close to the goalline. Sánchez rushed to scoop it clear, but instead pushed it against the shin of teammate Alexis MacAllister, where it rebounded into the Brighton net for 2-1.
With all the momentum swinging United’s way, ten Hag made the welcome move of introducing the lesser-spotted Donny van de Beek for McTominay. But with no equalising goal forthcoming, ten Hag rolled the dice again in the final minute, introducing Tyrell Malacia, Alejandro Garnacho and Anthony Elanga in place of Sancho, Fernandes and Luke Shaw.
The changes came too late to have any real effect on the game, and Brighton did an excellent job of hoarding possession to take the sting out of a potentially tricky five minutes of stoppage time. They held on to record their first ever win at Old Trafford, scotching ten Hag’s welcome party in the process. Let’s hope for more movement in the search for a midfielder over the coming weeks; otherwise, we could be in for another long and messy season.