This was the worst of possible starts for Manchester United under Erik ten Hag. All the optimism of pre-season and a new manager curdled as Old Trafford proved a theatre of Ten Hag’s direst nightmares.
Employed on a ticket of “proactive” (his word) pressing football the precise opposite was on show until a rally that drew a farcical consolation but proved too late as it came in the closing 22 minutes.
Brighton, simply, gave the Dutchman an uncompromising welcome to the Premier League. Leandro Trossard, Danny Welbeck and Pascal Gross were their stars in what was an impressive visit from Graham Potter’s men. At any moment it seemed like they would score so Ten Hag and his players have to rouse themselves for next weekend’s visit to Brentford before hosting Liverpool in the next home fixture.
United might have registered as early as the sixth minute. Jadon Sancho moved inside and poked the ball to Scott McTominay who had taken up his right-wing berth. He found Bruno Fernandes but the No 8 blazed over from only yards out. Before this, 15 seconds in, Diogo Dalot had dithered, allowing Trossard to let fly. He hit the side-netting but moments after Fernandes’s miss the No 11 was gifted the ball in a similar area: again United escaped.
Before this season opener the latest protests from United supporters had caused the club shop to be closed as a crowd thronged the area in front of the superstore: this will have been noted by Avram Glazer, a co-owner making a rare visit and who watched on from the directors’ box. For his inaugural Premier League XI, Ten Hag solved the problem of Anthony Martial’s hamstring injury enforced absence by selecting Christian Eriksen at No 9; the ploy did not work.
Considering Ten Hag has drilled his charges to close down from day one, the lax marking will have infuriated: one Brighton attack had Trossard dallying in a crowded area before chipping the ball towards Moisés Caicedo with Lisandro Martínez, like Eriksen making his Premier League debut for United, half-asleep. When, later, Alexis Mac Allister pulled the trigger Eriksen did press but this opening occurred because Trossard was again allowed room down to cross.
He had a pivotal part in a Brighton opener that, too, derived from United’s leakiness. A McTominay surge was the first error as he ran into a Brighton sandwich. From here the ball was threaded by Trossard to the effervescent Welbeck and when he tapped over a cross Gross, unmarked, rolled in. Cut to a Ten Hag shaking his head and Cristiano Ronaldo, on the bench, lifting his arms: either in disdain or encouragement.
Next, though, more despair for those in red. From along Brighton’s left Trossard fed Caicedo. He shrugged off a passive Eriksen and the ball was swept upfield in a sequence featuring Gross, Adam Lallana and Solly March. The latter shot, David de Gea palmed out and Gross, following in, doubled his tally and the lead, Fred the latest United bystander.
When the interval arrived Ten Hag, surely, had curt words prepared. If so the Dutchman still had to watch McTominay get in another muddle and Martínez lose Welbeck whose header should have made it 3-0.
The name missing from the lineup was Ronaldo’s. Only playing 45 minutes of last Sunday’s friendly with Rayo Vallecano and having two weeks of training may have been behind the manager naming the want-away centre-forward as a substitute. Whether Ronaldo’s walk-out before the Vallecano match ended and which Ten Hag branded as “unacceptable” was a further factor in this was unclear. But, seven minutes into the second half, the 52-year-old turned to a man 15 years his junior, Fred making way, as Ronaldo went to his favoured No 9 berth and Eriksen moved back.
Martínez was enduring a minor shocker. This would have become a major one but for Paul Tierney’s leniency when the centre-back shoved Welbeck over in the area. It appeared a penalty but Martínez escaped. Marcus Rashford, too, was poor. One regulation control pushed the ball out and he missed two golden chances from close range. The first had Ronaldo flagged – wrongly – for offside so VAR would have allowed it.
There was a positive adjudication when United finally struck. A scramble at a corner had the ball hitting Dalot – possibly on the arm – with Harry Maguire involved too and maybe offside before it went in off Mac Allister: VAR ruled this fair and United had a lifeline. As the home crowd roared their men on a curving Dalot shot was fumbled by Robert Sánchez as, now, Brighton had to hang on.
When Donny van de Beek replaced McTominay he passed a note, presumably from Ten Hag, to Maguire. Whatever it said did not work as Brighton, at final whistle, were value for the victory.
For United this may be yet another long season.