Man United’s on-field feats no better than off-field messes

MANCHESTER, England — After an international break filled with controversy and club statements, Manchester United got an opportunity to let their football do the talking. Rather than taking a positive step forward to help steady the ship, Erik ten Hag and his team were plunged further into crisis by Brighton & Hove Albion.

Roberto De Zerbi’s side won 3-1 to end United’s 31-match unbeaten run at Old Trafford in their first game since Jadon Sancho was banished from first-team training and Antony was given a leave of absence amid allegations of assault made against the winger. Brighton were the last team to win a Premier League game here more than a year ago and have now beaten United in their past four league meetings.

United were without Sancho, Antony and injured pair Raphaël Varane and Mason Mount, but Brighton won despite missing Pervis Estupiñán, Solly March and Julio Enciso, while Billy Gilmour and Evan Ferguson were only named on the bench. De Zerbi picked a starting XI that cost £17 million in transfer fees to assemble, roughly a quarter of the £73m United paid Borussia Dortmund to sign Sancho in 2021.

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Amid it all, there were the first murmurs of supporter dissent aimed at Ten Hag with loud boos ringing around the stadium when the Dutchman substituted Rasmus Højlund for Anthony Martial with the score at 2-0. Afterward, Ten Hag brushed it off, just as he did on Friday when his news conference was dominated by questions about his public rift with Sancho.

The manager insists he’s only interested in matters on the pitch, but performances haven’t been much better than the chaos away from the actual football.

It’s now three defeats from five games, and even their two victories — against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Nottingham Forest — came courtesy of underwhelming performances from their opponents. Forest were 2-0 up inside four minutes before losing 3-2, and when Brighton scored their second here it was the first time United had conceded multiple goals in four straight league fixtures since 1979.

Ten Hag’s first season was full of ups and downs but, more often than not, they kept clean sheets at Old Trafford and won their home games. Now, it seems they can’t even do that.

“We have to be disappointed and we have to be very annoyed with ourselves because at United the demand is you win games,” Ten Hag said after the match. “We started well, we created chances and on the second attack from them and the first chance, it’s in. Then we have to do better with that setback. It’s the stage we are in at this moment. You have to look in the mirror, look at yourself and we have to improve.”

Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, managers charged with filling his boots have found that things can unravel very quickly. Ten Hag can only hope he can mastermind a route back in a way David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick all failed to do.

It won’t get any easier with a Champions League trip to Bayern Munich to come on Wednesday followed by an awkward game at Turf Moor against Burnley three days later. United need a win from somewhere and they need it quickly.

“it’s about character, and now we have to see how strong we are and how the team sticks together and which players stand up and lead the team,” Ten Hag added. “Bayern Munich is one of the favourites to win the Champions League so we have to be good there and I already explained we need character, belief, resilience and determination, absolutely.”

It might have been different here had VAR not ruled out an equaliser in the first half, when the ball was adjudged to have rolled out of play before Marcus Rashford crossed for Højlund to tap in, but there was nothing fortunate about Brighton’s victory.

Their goals came on the break, but this was no smash and grab. Brighton had more possession and more shots on target, and they could have scored more. The afternoon was summed up by the Brighton fans in the corner of the stadium who, during a spell of United pressure in stoppage time, began to sing “we want our ball back.”

There were small positives for Ten Hag, like his team’s energetic start, Rashford’s performance and Hannibal‘s first senior goal, but they were few and far between.

It says everything about how things are going for United that Brighton’s first goal was scored by one of their former players, Danny Welbeck. The goal, well worked down the right and involving a clever dummy from Adam Lallana, equalled Brighton’s club record of scoring in 16 successive away games.

That’s where these two teams are at: Brighton, a club on the up despite losing key players over the summer, are setting club records while United are creating history for all the wrong reasons. After all the off-field troubles, the only statistic that really matters is that United have lost three of their opening five games for the first time in the Premier League era.