With a moody preseason not helped by Manchester United’s failure to sign a new centre-back, Jose Mourinho is doing little to assuage fears over his often ill-fated third season, while Brighton are looking to build upon a positive first year in the Premier League.
Mourinho set up his team in a 4-3-3 formation, whereas Chris Hughton opted for a 4-2-3-1.
The match played out in much the same way as the same fixture last season, only at greater extremes. Brighton sat back in a 4-4-2 shape and asked United to play through them, which the away side were unequipped to do.
There were several reasons for this. Firstly, and the most basic issue, was that the players didn’t position themselves well to move the ball up the pitch. A basic positional structure generally consists of triangles so that a player has at least two options to pass to and the receiving player has someone to pass it on to – United didn’t form these triangles and so they found it extremely difficult to work their way up the pitch.
Andreas Pereira dropped in between the centre-backs, blocking off a pass between them to switch play and also meaning he couldn’t act as a link in the midfield, while the full-backs barely pushed forward. As a result United’s first line had five players in it, with only one option ahead of them in midfield to pass to – Fred, who was typically surrounded by four players and so could do little to move the ball on.
This made it fairly easy for Brighton to win the ball back. United would either play the ball into Fred, who the strikers and midfielders could easily swarm, or to the full-backs, who, closed down by their opposing winger, would have no option to play it forward or inside and struggled to play it backwards due to the Brighton forwards moving across to cut off the centre-backs. Much of the time the defenders ended up hitting it long but with Juan Mata and Anthony Martial staying wide close to the touchline Romelu Lukaku was left isolated and the sharp Brighton defenders and midfield were always on hand to steal the ball off him.
With the United players often left isolated in possession, they had two options: hit it long and have Brighton claim the ball back in their own half or play it short and have Brighton claim it in theirs. Either way Brighton’s play was largely the same: playing quick passes along the floor to get the ball into the wide areas, for the wingers or the full-backs in support to whip a cross in before United could get organised in defence.
The opening goal exemplified this perfectly: Paul Pogba comes deep to help play the ball out but with few options ends up looping a hard-to-control aerial pass into Pereira, who is immediately pressed by Davy Propper and loses the ball. Propper then plays a first time ball into Glenn Murray which is forced out for a throw-in. Brighton then play it backwards and over to the opposite wing, with the untracked Gaetan Bong forcing Ashley Young to leave Solly March, a quick pass in behind giving him the space to drill it across across for Murray to finish.
They then doubled their lead minutes later with a scrappy goal from a corner, with several United players caught ball-watching, only to concede in much the same way. However Brighton got a third from a penalty with many similarities to their first: David De Gea hits an aerial ball from a goal kick into Fred, Dale Stephens presses him and wins the ball, plays a quick ball in behind for Pascal Gross who is felled by Eric Bailly.
Mourinho made two changes at half time, bringing on Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford for Mata and Pereira, switching to a 4-2-3-1 as Pogba and Fred now sat in front of the defence. Pogba now at least saw more of the ball, allowing him to use his passing range to try and find Rashford, Martial or Lukaku with a ball in behind, however this was asking him to produce a perfect pass and the receiver to produce a perfect touch rather than giving him simpler alternatives to work the ball up the pitch.
Lingard had helped with this in their previous match, but here he found himself wandering around unable to get on the ball unless he came deep, which didn’t exactly help United move it forward, while Mata had occasionally found some space in the first half when he came inside, but these moments were rare as he spent most of the match hugging the touchline and was replaced by Rashford at half-time, whose skillset doesn’t lend itself to a more patient style.
It was only the introduction of Marouane Fellaini for Martial in the 60th minute that really improved United. They could now safely lump the ball forward knowing that he would win it and they could claim the second ball, but even though they could now get the ball higher up the pitch they still struggled to create chances, with a penalty in the dying seconds only a consolation goal.
United were quite so bad most likely because it’s so early in the season and their players aren’t at full match sharpness, however this problem has existed throughout Mourinho’s tenure and while most teams are unlikely to expose it quite as thoroughly as Brighton here, it doesn’t exactly bode well.