BRIGHTON, England — This was more like the old Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and in many ways, that is precisely the problem. They needed a frankly ludicrous chain of events to secure a fortuitous 3-2 victory here at the Amex Stadium as Brighton hit the woodwork five times and conceded the match-defining penalty after the final whistle on VAR review.
Referee Chris Kavanagh was right to award the spot kick as Neal Maupay handled Harry Maguire’s header, but three points were considerably more than United deserved from the preceding 90 minutes.
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It was a game that captured the best and worst of United under Solskjaer: intermittently devastating counter-attacks punctuating periods of sterile possession and cheap turnovers. The calamitous finale was further evidence of United’s inability to control matches, chiefly stemming from an ineffective central midfield.
Solskjaer was borderline boastful when discussing his midfield options in response to a question as to whether Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and new £39 million signing, Donny van de Beek, could all play in the same team.
“I can see lots of different combinations in that midfield, different systems as well,” he said on Friday. He needs to find one that works and fast, because they won’t get this lucky often enough in order to mount the Premier League title challenge they should be aiming for.
After Scott McTominay and Pogba started together in the opening weekend defeat to Crystal Palace, Solskjaer opted to pair the latter with Nemanja Matic. Pogba’s talent is undeniable, but his application remains questionable. The 27-year-old failed to create a single shot, take a shot, make a tackle or an interception during his 65 minutes on the pitch and at 71%, Pogba registered the lowest pass completion rate of any United player.
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After a similarly subdued display against Palace, Solskjaer was quick to point out the midfielder’s disrupted summer break as a result of testing positive for COVID-19. “He missed a lot of the preseason because of his illness so he’s not had internationals,” Solskjaer said. “The two 60, 65 minutes he’s had will help him along and he’ll just get better and better.”
The suspicion remains that Pogba is ill-suited to a deeper role in a midfield two, but regardless, he simply has to affect matches more than this to warrant a place in the team.
Matic was typically cumbersome in possession and as a pairing they were unable to beat the Brighton press, particularly during the first half, meaning there was both insufficient supply for United’s forwards and a lack of protection at the back. The combination meant the home side were full value for the 40th-minute lead given to them by Maupay’s penalty, awarded after Fernandes fouled Tariq Lamptey in the box.
Lewis Dunk’s own goal brought United level just before the break, but United had rarely threatened, coming to life in one super move midway through the half which culminated in a Mason Greenwood goal correctly ruled out for offside. They did get it right 10 minutes after half-time, Fernandes releasing Marcus Rashford with a superb pass before the England international surged into the box, beat Ben White and fired a shot past Mat Ryan with the aid of a deflection off Dunk.
United struggled to assert any authority on the game, a fact acknowledged in Solskjaer’s substitutions as firstly, Fred replaced Pogba, before defender Eric Bailly was sent on in place of striker Anthony Martial. Van de Beek was restricted to a stoppage-time cameo, yet he still witnessed the game’s most dramatic moments, Solly March equalising in the fifth minute of added time before referee Chris Kavanagh blew the final whistle, only to be advised by VAR to review Maupay’s handball. Fernandes slotted home the penalty to prove “Solskjaer Time” really is after “Fergie Time” in every sense.
The chaotic end should not mask what was another underwhelming performance from United, pointing to what Solskjaer admitted were “structural” issues.
Shaka Hislop says Man United look way off finishing in the top four, even after a late winner at Brighton.
“When you concede chances and goals, there are two different things you can look at,” he said. “There is the team shape or individual mistakes. For me, we are not in our best shape or form. Our shape isn’t there. We are not sharp enough to get out to stop crosses or follow the runs, so we are a little bit behind. They are more structural mistakes than individual mistakes.”
Central midfield has been an issue for United dating back years, and so it continues. The addition of Van de Beek offers greater creativity and guile, but there surely needs to be an evolution in this United team to shake the well-rooted feeling that they’re a counter-attacking team only capable of winning matches one way. It can be highly effective, of course, but finding a greater level of control and creativity in central areas behind Fernandes would make them much harder to set-up against.
Solskjaer insists United will improve as they get up to speed following a delayed start but this issue has been a constant throughout his tenure. Something needs to change otherwise too many matches will be decided by luck rather than judgement and that’s no way to challenge for the Premier League.