It was the worst possible start for Manchester United under Erik ten Hag. All the pre-season optimism and a new manager crumbled as Old Trafford turned out to be the scene of the Dutchman’s worst nightmares.
Employed on a ‘proactive’ (his word) pressing football ticket, the exact opposite was on the cards until a rally that drew wacky consolation but proved too late as it came in the last 22 minutes.
Brighton have given the Dutchman an uncompromising welcome to the Premier League. Leandro Trossard, Danny Welbeck and Pascal Gross starred in an impressive visit from Graham Potter’s men. At all times it looked like they were going to score, so Ten Hag and his players will have to wake up for next weekend’s visit to Brentford before hosting Liverpool in the next home fixture.
Describing the task ahead of him as a “hell’s job”, Ten Hag succinctly summed up a decline that began nine years ago when Sir Alex Ferguson left.
The 52-year-old team could have scored in the sixth minute. Jadon Sancho moved inside and pushed the ball to Scott McTominay, who would be muscled all afternoon in his bunk on the right wing. He finds Bruno Fernandes but the Portuguese flies away a few meters.
Before that, 15 seconds later, Diogo Dalot had dithered, allowing Trossard to let go. He touched the side netting but moments after Fernandes’ miss, the Brighton No 11 received the ball in a similar area and once again United escaped.
Prior to the opening, protests from United supporters caused the club’s store to close as a crowd thronged outside the megastore: this will have been noted by Avram Glazer, a rare visiting co-owner watching from management box. For their first Premier League XI, Ten Hag solved the problem of Anthony Martial’s enforced absence with a hamstring injury by selecting Christian Eriksen with a false 9, but the ploy didn’t work.
Considering Ten Hag broke through his charges to close on day one, the lax marking will have infuriated: a Brighton attack dragged Trossard through a crowded area before handing the ball to Moisés Caicedo with Lisandro Martínez, as Eriksen made his debut in the Premier League for United, half asleep. When later Alexis Mac Allister fired a shot on goal, Eriksen pressed but that opening happened because Trossard again had the chance to cross.
He played a pivotal role in a Brighton opener which also stemmed from United’s flight. A push from McTominay was the first mistake as he ran into a Brighton sandwich. From there the ball was threaded by Trossard towards the effervescent Welbeck and when he tapped a cross the unmarked Gross rolled. Cut to Ten Hag shaking his head and Cristiano Ronaldo, on the bench, raising his arms: either out of disdain or encouragement.
Then, however, more despair for those in red. Along Brighton’s left, Trossard fed Caicedo. He ignored a passive Eriksen and the ball was swept uphill in a sequence featuring Gross, Adam Lallana and Solly March. The latter shot on goal, David de Gea kicked out and Gross, the next, doubled his tally and the lead, Fred the last United spectator.
When the intermission arrived, Ten Hag, surely, had prepared dry words. If so, the Dutchman still had to watch McTominay get into another confusion and Martínez lose Welbeck, whose header should have made it 3-0.
The name that was missing from the starting line-up was that of Ronaldo. The manager says playing just 45 minutes of last Sunday’s friendly with Rayo Vallecano plus ’10 days’ of training is behind him, naming the runaway striker as a substitute.
Seven minutes into the second half, the manager turned to the man 15 years his junior, Fred making his way, as Ronaldo headed for his preferred No.9 spot and Eriksen fell back to operate like a deep string puller. Martínez was suffering a minor shock and it would have turned into a major shock had it not been for Paul Tierney’s leniency when the centre-back pushed Welbeck into the area. It appeared to be a penalty but Martínez escaped as the referee ruled that no foul had been committed.
Marcus Rashford, too, was poor in an unwanted echo of last season. A regulation check pushed the ball in and he missed two golden chances from close range. The former had flagged Ronaldo – wrongly – for offside, so VAR would have cleared it.
There was a positive moment when United finally struck. A scramble in a corner caused the ball to hit Dalot – possibly on the arm – with Harry Maguire also involved and possibly offside before it entered Mac Allister: VAR ruled this fair and United had a lifeline. As the home crowd roared for their men, a curved shot from Dalot was dropped by Brighton keeper Robert Sánchez because, now, Brighton had to hang on.
When Donny van de Beek replaced McTominay, he passed a note, presumably from Ten Hag, to Maguire. Either way, it didn’t work out as Brighton, at the final whistle, were full value for the win. For United, it could be another long season.