The Erik ten Hag era has gotten off to a rocky start at Manchester United after a 2-1 loss to Brighton at Old Trafford. Booed off the pitch after trailing 2-0 at the half due to a brace from Pascal Gross, Manchester United would get a goal back via an Alexis Mac Allister own goal, but it never felt like the Red Devils were threatening. While Brighton are a tough squad to open the season against due to how Graham Potter prepares his side and their discipline, it’s important to note that the Seagulls finished closer to Manchester United than Manchester United did to a Champions League place last season.
Only seven points separated the sides and despite losing Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella during the summer, Potter would like to close that gap this season. An opening day win at Old Trafford certainly helps with that goal. Brighton were the better side from the first kick of the ball and could’ve easily scored more goals. Almost at the first kick, Leandro Trossard picked off Diogo Dalot but drove his shot just wide of David de Gea’s net. That would foreshadow how the match would go as Brighton’s press was something that ten Hag would be envious of as he wants a similar setup at United.
Despite posting on social media that he was ready for the match, Cristiano Ronaldo began the day on the bench as ten Hag only opted to start Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez out of the new summer additions. Eriksen was handed an interesting role as the center forward being flanked by Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, but where things began to break down was in a familiar place between the midfield pairing of Scott McTominay and Fred. Not pressing Adam Lallana on Brighton’s opener allowed Danny Welbeck far too much space to play a searching ball across the face of net that found Gross:
Fred was also beaten for Brighton’s second as Luke Shaw and Bruno Fernandes couldn’t close down Solly March before his cross was tipped by De Gea:
The goals wouldn’t be as bad if the duo offered more in the build-up, but instead they lost possession a combined 21 times in central midfield. While this wasn’t the top number on the team as that belongs to Dalot, where possession was lost matters. When pressed by Moises Caiceido, the duo turned over possession constantly in their half so that Brighton didn’t have much ground to cover going on the counter. Caicedo shined winning two tackles while also registering a team-high three interceptions to make the job easier for the Brighton attack.
Without any help in the pivot, ten Hag can’t begin to instill his style in the squad. Sancho and Rashford were isolated when they need the ball to run at defenses, while Eriksen was better when Ronaldo entered the match as he was allowed to drop deeper into midfield. How ten Hag will rectify this will be interesting to watch as Ronaldo’s introduction also didn’t improve the team attack much at all.
His transfer saga has been a dark cloud over the team and the fact that he’s still a member of the side is a worst-case scenario for both parties. Playing 37 minutes from the bench, Ronaldo only took one shot and was flagged offsides on what looked to be one of their best chances. Despite controlling possession, United were unable to get the ball where they wanted it to play the game at their pace.
Behind after 60 minutes, ten Hag threw tactics out the window to throw things forward but that made the team easier to defend for Brighton. The attacks to Ronaldo were predictable and the goal that the visitors did concede can be chalked up as a flukey one. After the ball bounced off of Dalot’s back from a corner, Robert Sanchez palmed the ball into Mac Allister for an unfortunate own goal.
United showed very little in terms of positive play the rest of the way, but they did show how far they have to go if they want to be a Champions League side. Being linked to Marco Arnautovic to add to the forward line won’t resolve the issues, but playing James Garner more might. The young midfielder impressed on loan with Nottingham Forest last season, scoring four goals and assisting eight more in the Championship. He didn’t come into the loss Sunday but moving forward, he can offer an option that is better at picking out passes than McTominay and Fred. It wasn’t all bad for United as Martinez had a good debut, but it wasn’t nearly enough to keep a clean sheet with Harry Maguire struggling. Ten Hag’s job was never going to be an easy one, but he has quite a mountain to climb to turn this ship around, and after 90 minutes, his concerns are likely increasing.