Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 2 July 2020

Manchester United's longest journey to the place that started Jose Mourinho's downfall

Brighton has not been a happy hunting ground for Old Trafford giants

Manchester United travel to Brighton on Tuesday; a journey that will serve as a reminder of how much has changed since their last visit.

It was two games into the 2018-19 campaign the last time United made their longest domestic trip and, at a ground United have not won at since 1982, it played a pivotal part in eventually creating the vacancy now occupied by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Jose Mourinho was the manager. His mood had soured in the summer before, and got even worse in pre-season. Nonetheless, United fans were prepared to back him.

Before the match Mourinho walked out of the dressing room and to the side of the pitch. I had been asked to do a pre-match interview. “They’ll back you,” I said, pointing to the away fans, “but they need something back.”

Mourinho nodded. “Thanks,” he said tersely. “Thanks, thanks.”

United fans like managers who applaud them and show their appreciation. Mourinho felt it was the job of the players to thank the fans. Each to their own.

United lost 3-2. The 1-0 defeat at the same ground at the end of the 2017-18 campaign was one of the poorest games of Mourinho’s time at the club and meant that United were defeated by all three promoted teams that season.

This one was even worse. Brighton managed to score three after losing their captain Lewis Dunk to an early injury.

“Can we play you every week?” sang the home fans, whose team had bought 16 players in the close season.

Mourinho wanted one more central defender, but he had already brought in two. These were confusing times at Old Trafford.

Fans saw the strong line up at Brighton and felt optimistic as players, with eight days of uninterrupted training behind them, took to the field.

Then they were baffled as those players capitulated and missed the chance to put up a display of relative harmony. Did they not want to play for their boss?

Twice before the game, Mourinho stated publicly that he was happy but he didn’t appear to be. When his captain Paul Pogba said that Brighton “prepared much better than us” the cracks were revealed.

A week later, Mourinho was all clenched fists to the away fans at Burnley. But four months later he was sacked, the seeds of discontent sewed by himself that summer.

Fourteen games unbeaten with few injuries to worry about, Manchester United are in far better shape now. Six points clear of relegation, 15th place Brighton have won five of their 15 home games and beat Arsenal at home in their other post-lockdown match.

Marcus has been out for a while but I think he’s looked sharp

Solskjaer

United have slipped to sixth with a game in hand on Wolves above them. Solskjaer is chasing a top four place but rival teams are in form.

“I think there are many teams for that battle for third and fourth: Leicester, Chelsea, us, Wolverhampton doing really well, Tottenham, Arsenal and Sheffield United want to put a run together and put a challenge in there,” Solskjaer said ahead of Tuesday’s game.

He will likely go for his strongest 11, with Marcus Rashford starting. The Mancunian, who has returned after breaking his back in January, has made assists but has yet to score since the restart.

“Of course Marcus has been out for a while but I think he’s looked sharp, he came on and looked sharp against Norwich,” said his manager.

“Against Sheffield United he missed one or two chances but the goals he created are what we’re focusing on.

“He’s on his way to the best season ever, I’m looking forward to him getting more minutes, and he’ll definitely score a goal soon.”

The National asked Solskjaer if he has made any changes to his preparations or tactics after the experience of a few games without crowds.

“The lack of fans affects the players,” said Solskjaer. “Some thrive on it. The game looks slower without the fans.

"The physical stats show that there’s not a big difference, maybe it just looks it. The ball is more in play but you have to create your own atmosphere and enthusiasm. Some players thrive with crowds, others relax more with no crowds and feel they can express themselves more. Individual players and teams react differently.”

United, as a team, certainly need to react differently at Brighton if they’re to avoid a third straight defeat at the AMEX, especially as so few of their rivals are losing ground.

Updated: June 29, 2020 05:55 PM

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