Brighton went into the game still unsure of their safety from relegation, whereas Manchester United have already guaranteed their place in the Champions League next season.
Chris Hughton set up in the usual 4-2-3-1, bringing back Glenn Murray and Davy Propper into the team after they were left out against Burnley, while Jose Mourinho made a host of changes to the team that beat Arsenal, although he kept them in a 4-3-3.
Although not technically safe, Brighton pretty much are at this point so the game felt very much like a dead rubber. The forwards would sometimes press United’s backline, but Brighton generally sat back in a 4-4-2 shape and asked United to play through them, with Pascal Gross often dropping off into midfield to make it more difficult to play into Paul Pogba.
The United line-up weren’t really equipped to break Brighton down though. Matteo Darmian doesn’t offer much attacking down the right, Marouane Fellaini and Nemanja Matic are primarily defensive players in the middle and Pogba was often cut off by Gross. Ashley Young could get down the left, but he didn’t really have anyone to aim crosses at: Marcus Rashford is at his best when he has space to attack, but here he was leading the line against a deep defensive line which denied it to him, leaving him largely ineffective. Pogba had the same problem of not really having anyone to aim at when he did get on the ball.
Juan Mata was the only player really capable of breaking down Brighton, but Propper and Jose Izquierdo did a good job of denying him the ball, keeping close enough together so that they often cut out the ball when it was played to him. Mata would have to come deep in front of the defence to pick up the ball, but then the same problem remained: there was no one in attack to pass it to.
There’s generally a larger gap between Anthony Knockaert and Dale Stephens on the opposite flank, but Anthony Martial didn’t offer much to take advantage of it. He would generally receive his ball with his back to goal, meaning the ball would either go straight back the opposite way or he would take three touches to turn around, by which time Brighton players would surround him and claim the ball back. Rashford would sometimes drop off between the lines, with Martial pushing up to lead the line, but with Brighton keeping their shape well, he rarely managed to actually get on the ball here.
Brighton’s attacks generally consisted of Gross moving over to whichever flank the ball was going down, typically the right, helping to outnumber the defenders with his full-back and winger. In most games they would try to send in a cross to Glenn Murray from here, however in this game they seemed to be trying to pull the United full-backs up the pitch then chipping the ball over the top for a runner to attack in behind.
Although hard-working, Young isn’t really a full-back and Marcos Rojo wasn’t always alive to any threats, meaning Gross, Knockaert and Bruno could draw Young up the pitch quite easily then hit the ball over the top into the space he had left for one of the others to pick up, as Rojo wasn’t guaranteed to be covering behind him. Matic would track the runs though and was generally on hand to quell the threat.
Mostly picking up the ball deep in their own half, Brighton relied on the long, slaloming runs of Knockaert to get the ball up the pitch, which proved difficult for the tall, immobile midfield three United started with.
The match was for the most part United’s backline and deepest midfielders passing the ball from side to side slowly, while Brighton sat back. Neither side really posing much of a threat.
Nevertheless, Brighton took the lead thirteen minutes into the second half. Winning the ball back in defence, Brighton worked the ball forward with little opposition as United’s players retreated, quickly getting Izquierdo running at their backline, but with United having five players back. Darmian seemed to have Izquierdo safely cornered, but in cutting off his pass inside, the ball cannoned off him, allowing Izquierdo to go back down the outside and get a cross in. David de Gea got a touch on it sending it up in the air, and Gross was on hand to head it barely across the line, with Young never close to stopping him at the back post.
It was a bit of a freak goal, with both Darmian and De Gea’s touches having negative consequences despite neither really doing too much wrong.
Ten minutes later, Mourinho made a double substitution, bringing off Fellaini and Darmian for Jesse Lingard and Luke Shaw, with Young swapping over to the right side. With these changes United attacked much better. Lingard is perfect for this type of game, moving the ball quickly to inject some speed to United’s glacial passing. This gave Mata more support and Martial looked much livelier now he had someone to combine with, as the three of them all linked up between the lines.
Brighton had their goal and could just sit back though, so, while United posed much more of a threat than they had previously, they would have to break down the home side in just 22 minutes. It proved too much for them as Brighton held out.
The three points were enough to guarantee another season in the Premier League for Brighton, while Mourinho was understandably frustrated with his players, although this game was unlikely to tell him anything he didn’t already know.