Mourinho refuses to criticise his players after a difficult day against their newly-promoted opponents.
Manchester United extend perfect Old Trafford record but it does not come easy against impressive Brighton
There was history amid the mediocrity. “We were more spirit and heart than quality,” Jose Mourinho admitted after what he willingly accepted was not Manchester United’s most dynamic or destructive display of the season but the fact is that they set a new club record.
This was a 39th consecutive game at Old Trafford that they have navigated without defeat, a sequence that stretches back to Mourinho’s solitary home loss, to Manchester City, 14 months ago. For good measure, United extended their immaculate start to the campaign on their own turf. Successful seasons can be built on such results.
“My boys didn’t play well but they gave everything. The boys they don’t deserve bad words from me,” said the United manager, who was magnanimous in victory.
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Brighton and Hove Albion ranked as arguably the most impressive opponents to visit Old Trafford this season.
“I have to praise a team and a manager who were playing in the Championship a few months ago and they were the team who gave us the most problems,” Mourinho added. “Probably they deserve more than the result they got.”
A disciplined, determined side were nonetheless defeated in desperately unlucky fashion. Ashley Young’s decisive shot took a huge deflection off Lewis Dunk, flying into the top corner of goalkeeper Mathew Ryan’s net.
Brighton’s irritation was increased because it followed a corner, given against Solly March when they were convinced the final touch came off Romelu Lukaku. “I don’t think it was a corner and the manner of the goal is very disappointing,” manager Chris Hughton said.
Young’s eventual effort was one of just four United shots on target. “Mathew Ryan had to make one very good save but apart from that I can’t think of too many chances they created,” Hughton added.
It was an outstanding double save, denying first Lukaku and then Paul Pogba, but otherwise, it was hard to disagree.
“Probably most people thought at half-time that United would step up a gear and win convincingly,” Hughton said. They did not. It was an indication of dissatisfaction that Mourinho had sent Zlatan Ibrahimovic out to warm up with 10 minutes of the first half remaining. The third cameo of his comeback eventually came with half an hour remaining. He was one of a phalanx of potential scorers United deployed.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if today some of the pundits say we play with too many attackers,” said a caustic Mourinho. “But if they say that, they are wrong.” Eric Cantona, one of United’s greatest players, had branded him defensive. His team selection seemed a riposte.
Even before Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marouane Fellaini came on, Mourinho had started by fielding a front four, Pogba in a central-midfield duo and full-backs who were once wingers, whereas he has shown a tendency in the past to staff the sides of his defence with progressive players. One of those, Young, provided the crucial contribution, upstaging more fashionable figures.
“Our creation was poor,” Mourinho said. “The three players who played with Lukaku [in the front four], they were not successful.” It was not his only complaint. “After the goal we couldn’t kill the game."
Brighton’s two shots on target amounted to simple saves for David de Gea but they provided a stream of inviting crosses from the right flank, courtesy of Anthony Knockaert and Bruno Salter.
Mourinho is a manager who values control. He argued he ceded it in the centre of the pitch, fielding Pogba and Nemanja Matic against Brighton’s trio. He has been short of midfield options of late. Captain Michael Carrick has not played since September because of an irregular heart rhythm.
Carrick could be back in contention soon but Mourinho revealed that the 36-year-old has an open invitation to join his backroom team.
“Michael as a person is more important than Michael as a player,” he said. “We gave him the time to relax, to recover and to feel confident.
"He knows that my coaching staff has a chair for him if he wants, when he wants. I want that, the board wants that, the owners want that so Michael is in a comfortable situation. His future is with us but he wants to be a player until the end of the season.”