Laboured Man United get lucky vs. Brighton as strike trio fail to inspire
MANCHESTER, England -- Three thoughts on Manchester United's 1-0 win over Brighton as they continued their fine home form but struggled to impress.
1. Laboured United get lucky
The best that could be said about Manchester United is that this was the kind of match they drew last season. For long periods their labours brought back memories of matches against Burnley, Stoke, Bournemouth and Swansea, where a smaller club escaped Old Trafford with a point after Jose Mourinho's team struggled to find a winner.
Brighton were good value for a share of the spoils and will curse their rotten luck. It took a 66th minute deflected strike off Lewis Dunk from Ashley Young to breach them, with United incapable of breaking them down and the addition of substitute Zlatan Ibrahimovic looking an act of mounting desperation.
United might even have been behind. Brighton twice went close in the early stages when Anthony Knockaert dragged a shot wide from the right of the box and Pascal Gross' low shot was saved by David De Gea. The visitors built up a considerable head of steam in the first half hour; United were as disjointed as they were during Wednesday's loss to Basel, while Albion fans' raucous noise filled the wintry air.
United's first real chance of the first half came when Antonio Valencia, on the overlap, drifted in a cross that Romelu Lukaku could not direct toward the goal. Brighton's powerful centre-back pairing of Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk had otherwise dealt well with any aerial traffic into their box, while at the other end, Glenn Murray came closer still when narrowly failing to get on the end of a Bruno flick.
Then came a moment that had United fans' hearts in mouths, and not because goalkeeper Mat Ryan made a fine, low save from Lukaku. Paul Pogba stayed down after trying to get to the rebound -- again well saved by Ryan -- having twisted his left knee. There were gasps, but the £89.3 million man got back up eventually, if gingerly, and came back out for the second half.
There, United continued to toil with Lukaku feeding off scraps, as Brighton kept a keen eye on running down the clock. On the hour, Jose Mourinho had clearly seen enough and, banking on Brighton continuing their retreat, threw on Ibrahimovic as United went 4-4-2 with the Swede partnering with Lukaku.
It was not either front man who made the breakthrough, though. After a corner was only half-cleared, Young cut inside to fizz a shot that Dunk inadvertently deflected over Ryan. It was a stroke of fortune for United, who still had to ride out a number of Brighton attacks to cling on to three points, gained far more by luck than accomplishment. They stay second in the table but looked light years behind Manchester City.
2. Fantasy trio fails to fire
Mourinho gave the people what they wanted in fielding Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford either side of a central striker, but United suffered the same problems as in the 4-1 win last week against Newcastle, when they were similarly rocked in the early stages by an opponent who started on the front foot.
Even after Brighton's fast start had ebbed away, United's fantasy trio came nowhere close to announcing themselves as a force to compare to Real Madrid's "BBC" of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, or even Tottenham's trio of Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli.
United's attacking trident struggled for service. With Juan Mata in midfield, and Pogba's failure to get into the game a symptom of the long layoff from which he has recently returned, Nemanja Matic was overcome by Brighton's busy midfielders.
Having begun the game centrally, Rashford had to take on defensive duties on the right flank against the surges of Solly March. It was not until the later stages of the first half that he and Lukaku began to see the ball in Brighton territory. Martial, meanwhile, remained marginalised on the left, where Young, overlapping from full-back, had been far more productive, even before his goal. A 70th minute withdrawal ended Martial's afternoon on the margins, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan arrived.
Rashford did not last much longer, limping off to be replaced by Marouane Fellaini. It may be a while until Mourinho fields him, Martial and Lukaku together again.
3. Lindelof survives Murray test
In Brighton's previous matches against top six opposition, they lost 2-0 to both Manchester City and Arsenal. In both those matches, Murray was only fit enough to come off the bench, but as a starter at Old Trafford, he presented a significant threat to Victor Lindelof.
Canny and physical, Murray's old-school centre forward play severely tested Lindelof, still some way off convincing that he is worth his £31m fee. Murray clearly targeted the junior partner of United's central defence and laid off flicks to Knockaert and Davy Propper.
Their first duel saw Murray hold off Lindelof with ease, but the Swede equalised the personal battle by making a fine interception in the penalty box that ended up setting up a United counter attack. Later on, Lindelof was lucky to escape punishment for a sliding, high tackle on Knockaert, but he ended up escaping unscathed, as Murray was withdrawn with 15 minutes left.
Murray playing up against Lindelof left Chris Smalling as United's spare man at the back to bring the ball forward, a position that England coach Gareth Southgate does not feel Smalling is suited to. It was clever management from Chris Hughton, rigorous as ever in his preparation, but as against City and Arsenal, his players fell short of the quality required to get a result.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.