The Manchester United players left the Old Trafford pitch on Sunday to the sound of now familiar boos.
After an early brace from Pascal Gross, the home side laboured to get back into the game. They were fortunate to benefit from an Alexis Mac Allister own goal in the second half but were never able to truly exert any sustained pressure on a street-smart Brighton side that managed the final minutes of the game expertly to claim a deserved win.
What did we learn from the game and what can we expect from this United team going forward?
No player embodies Manchester United’s drastic change in fortunes in the last decade better than Marcus Rashford.
After bursting onto the scene as a precocious teenager and earning favorable comparisons to Kylian Mbappe as recently as the 2019-’20 season, Rashford’s development has stalled.
One of his most memorable goals came against Brighton in the 2020 season. After receiving a pass from Bruno Fernandes, he embarrassed then-Brighton center back, Ben White twice before scoring. Yesterday, that version of Rashford was a distant memory as he fluffed chance after chance, especially a glorious one laid on by Ronaldo.
Watching him, it’s clear that his confidence is at an all-time low. If he’s to earn a place in Erik Ten Haag’s team or even remain a Manchester United player, he needs to fix up fast.
Ronaldo on the bench
What you get when you sign a player of Ronaldo’s caliber is plenty of goals as well as on-pitch commitment. Unfortunately, that single-minded focus can go the other way too, especially when standards have fallen as much as they have at United.
It’s no secret that the Portuguese legend wants to leave United for a club in the UEFA Champions League. Unfortunately for both parties, none of the usual suspects is willing/able to sign him this season, which has left both Ronaldo and Manchester United in an uncomfortable situation.
After he stormed off at half time against Rayo Vallecano, Ronaldo was left on the bench against Brighton to send a message to the players, fans, squad, and media. Unfortunately for Erik Ten Haag, that message backfired as his side went down 2-0 and failed to carry any real attacking threat.
After Ronaldo came on, he promptly created United’s best chance for Rashford. Although the assistant referee raised his flag for offside, replays showed that the goal would have been given if the English forward had scored.
Although his team lost, Ronaldo never stopped trying to make something happen. If United hope to prevent another season like the last one, they need to convince Ronaldo to stay and recruit players with similar commitment and talent levels to augment their squad before the transfer window slams shut.
On two occasions in Sunday’s game, United players got off lightly after committing costly mistakes.
First, Scott McTominay ended up fouling Moises Caicedo after a heavy fourth touch and escaped what seemed like a surefire red card.
On the second occasion, Lisandro Martinez and Danny Welbeck had a coming together in the box, but the referee waved play on. Replays showed that the Brighton forward was right to be aggrieved at the decision as the new United signing had clearly barged him over.
If such clear decisions keep being ignored/leniently punished by the EPL referees, fans will rightly continue to question the effectiveness of VAR.
Baffling transfer links
Since Sunday, United have made bids for Bologna forward, Marko Arnautovic and Juventus midfielder, Adrien Rabiot.
After a season when Manchester City and Liverpool finished first and second respectively, they signed Kalvin Phillips, Erling Haaland and Darwin Nunez between them.
United finished sixth last season and so far, have signed Tyrell Malacia from Feyenoord, Christian Eriksen on a free and Lisandro Martinez from Ajax.
Two of those three players started against Brighton and looked shaky while the third came off the bench in added time.
United being linked to Arnautovic and Rabiot will not fill the fans with confidence that this board can close the gap to Manchester City and Liverpool anytime soon.
The lack of an elite defensive midfielder
In 2022, most elite teams play a 4-3-3- with an elite defensive midfielder sitting and two 8s playing dual roles.
On Saturday, United lined up in a 4-2-3-1 that fielded a double pivot of McTominay and Fred ahead of the defence.
It is a damning indictment of both United’s recruitment and Erik Ten Haag’s tactics that even with two defensive midfielders, his full backs could not effectively get forward on the overlap and the center backs were continually left exposed.
By now, it is clear that neither Fred or McTominay can screen a defense properly or build up play from midfield effectively. If United are to make any progress this season, they will need at least two midfield signings – one to screen the defence just like Fabinho and Rodri do so effectively, and another in the Frenkie de Jong mold.
With a little over three weeks to go until the transfer window closes, can Erik Ten Haag get in the players he needs to fuel a top0four push this season?
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