Problems continue to mount for Erik Ten Hag. The first 17 minutes, United attacked well but they looked open on the break however Brighton didn’t exploit it. When they did, they came out with a goal. Welbeck came back to haunt us yet again. Hojlund thought he levelled but a VAR check saw the cross came from the ball being over the line. United created enough chances but it was at a consequence of being too open defensively. Another one of United’s nemesis, Pascal Gross, double the score as Brighton weaved their way through United in a great passing move. Joao Pedro added another as United flooded forward even more. Hannibal was able to get a consolation but the last 20 minutes went with little action for United but Brighton should and could have added more. Bayern in the week means it won’t get any easier and the managerial grim reaper might finally be a concern for Ten Hag as things worsen to such an extent.
9 years ago, when Man Utd came back from an international break, they played against a team in blue and white stripes with their Dutch manager at the helm. They set up in a diamond shape and it rained goals for the Red Devils as they ran out 4-0 winners. It was against Queens Park Rangers and it was a very different team. It looked like the start of a new reign.
It was similar today in a lot of things but the differences were quite stark. For one, Brighton are not like that QPR team. They would be able to exploit the spaces that this diamond would inevitably give up. In the end, it is why the last three managers before Ten Hag gave up using this diamond. The ability for every single player in the team to be a two way player, comfortable in the possession and out of it, is incredibly important. The ability to expand and restrict quickly in turnovers is probably more paramount in this formation than it is any other.
With the players Man Utd have, it is not conducive with playing a diamond. Doing so against Brighton was suicide from Ten Hag. The lack of athleticism in midfield was duly exposed today as Eriksen and McTominay were pulled from pillar to post. They were constantly caught in betwixt going to press the Brighton player that had dropped into the space in front of the centre back or go out to press the full back. In essence, they always had a man to cover and if they did, another became free. Of course, they could better positioned whereby they could shadow cover one while being able to get to either if the ball got to either recipient but Eriksen does not have the physicality to do it or the defensive nous and while McTominay has the intensity to cover the ground, he looked clueless in what to do.
This then exposed the full backs. Reguilon and Dalot were already taking care of the wingers but when the full backs became free, advancing with the ball, they were once again having to make a choice in choosing what to do. You can see that for the first goal and Reguilon goes out to press and it drags the whole shape of the XI that inevitably left Welbeck free. United just do not have the players to play as exposed as they do. Particularly with a lot of players missing through injuries and disciplinary issues. Often times when Ten Hag has found himself with his back against the wall as he doesn’t have his first choice, he reaches for decisions that are strangely novel. Seldom does it work. The goals rained but it favoured the away team this time as Brighton pressed on the weakest areas in the United team. Ten Hag’s team was left bloody from sucker punches and it came as a result of the diamond trotted out today.
The boos that rung around the ground as Martial came on as substitute for Hojlund speaks in equal measure how much the Dane has impressed in those 90 mins against Arsenal and Brighton and also how far the stock of Martial has fallen. Hojlund was unlucky that the ball from Rashford came when the ball was just out by a hair because it was a quite excellent touch to set up the finish. However, it was not just that. His ability to tussle with defenders, take the ball in under pressure with his back to goal and the ability to stretch the play in the wider positions. In the end, it counted for little because he didn’t contribute to anything substantial but the building blocks are there and the signs for why we signed him for clear.
It stunk a bit of James celebrating scoring an equaliser as we looked for a winner against Crystal Palace some 4 years ago but Hannibal Mejbri coming on showed something as to why Man Utd parted with £8m for a 16 year old in 2019. The touch from the pass that Martinez fired into him and then the finish was brilliant. He buzzed around and put his foot in as he has shown before but he actually showed the qualities he has on the ball today. The fact United refused to play through him more when he was picking up clever position in between the Brighton structure probably shows more about United’s inability to play through the thirds. Hopefully the Tunisian actually gets more of a chance.
Speaking of a chance, the formation change was an extra smack in the face for Pellistri. Changing the formation of a whole team just so you are unable to play shows a manager having no confidence in your ability to effect games as a starter. Sancho and Antony, for different reasons, were unavailable so a spot was open. You really have to question Ten Hag’s decision in doing that when that change was effectively the reason for that loss.