This Manchester United team that played with freedom to defeat Brighton is a side fans can rally around
There is a sense that United are starting to progress, even if with setbacks
With fifteen minutes of Manchester United’s Premier League home game against Brighton and Hove Albion remaining, another sell-out crowd did something they’ve seldom done this year. With their side 3-1 up, they relaxed and allowed themselves to be entertained by their team.
Old Trafford has been nervous and angst-ridden as United’s results faltered and occasionally flattered. Dissent has been minimal – against the owners, the board or the manager, but it was stirring after the defeat at Newcastle last month.
When they weren’t losing in games, United struggled to hold onto their leads and they were far from invincible at home and dull too often, but it wasn’t like that against Brighton. As the sun shone following tributes on Remembrance Sunday, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s young team were playing with freedom, threatening to score and creating chances every couple of minutes.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were showing outrageous skill, teeing teammates up, running at defenders, Dan James was crossing accurately, Aaron Wan-Bissaka switched the ball back tricking his opponents, teenage full-back Brandon Williams surged forward.
As players tired, Fred’s energy came to the fore in his sixth straight start. Andreas Pereira is growing in confidence too. He scored, too. That midfield pair are a long way from convincing fans they have a long-term future at the club, but they’re improving.
Scott McTominay drove his team forward before leaving the field with an ankle injury. He celebrated his goal, but it was given to Davy Proper. Players who’ve been given regular opportunities were starting to demonstrate the benefits of being given regular opportunities. This was a Manchester United team that actually looked like a Manchester United team.
When Brighton pulled one back to make it 2-1, United didn’t fold. They responded immediately, Fred’s pass cutting through to Martial who set up Rashford. United kept attacking and maintained their level for the whole game. Too often United have played well in patches – in the first half against Wolves, Liverpool or Southampton – before fading.
They’re still a work in progress, but fans have been starved not only of Premier League challenges but entertaining football too. They got that against Brighton and it wasn’t a given.
Brighton have been playing well under Graham Potter. They have defeated United at home twice since they were promoted in 2017 and were difficult to overcome in Manchester in each of the last two seasons. Having started the day in eighth, they were above United in 14th and, having won only two of their previous five home league games United desperately needed a victory. Now they sit seventh.
As on Thursday against Partizan Belgrade, Rashford could easily have scored a hat-trick. He was frustrated to miss more easy chances and Paul Scholes’ line about Rashford being a scorer of great goals rather than a great goalscorer rang true.
“I think it’s our best performance of the season,” said Solskjaer. “Of course we can go back to the Chelsea game but today I thought our reaction after they scored was fantastic. We’ve sometimes this season asked when we’ve gone one or two up to go for the next one. How we didn’t end up five, six, seven up we don’t know. Exhilarating. Entertaining. Great to see that the boys enjoyed themselves.”
Four wins, four draws and four defeats from their opening 12 games remains a dreadful start to the season. United’s current position is also down to the inconsistency of rivals including Arsenal, Everton, West Ham, Wolves and Spurs who were expected to have performed much better.
There’s a gap of eight points between Manchester City in fourth and Sheffield United in fifth, but since that defeat at Newcastle, United have won five, drawn one and lost one in all competitions. This is an improvement, especially when Paul Pogba, their most talented player, has been absent through injury.
The mood continues to lift. Fans at games are onside with the manager and in the Stretford End, the Red Army began to sing ‘Ole! Ole! Ole!’ and ‘Solskjaer’s red and white army’ long before the end.
The defeat at Bournemouth last week hurt those fans and there will probably be more suffering to come as the team still needs to shed players who don’t fit in with the manager’s plans and needs additions. However, there’s a clear sense that United are starting to progress, albeit with setbacks.
“Bournemouth was disappointing,” said the United boss. “But we’ve had loads of answers to what we’re trying to do so, if they don’t get confidence from this, I don’t know what I can say to them.”
Updated: November 10, 2019 10:31 PM