There was no shock result at Old Trafford. As most had expected, Brighton won. As most had expected, the better-owned, better-run, better-managed club triumphed over an organisation that is still trying to remember what being a football club means. Manchester United, sadly, has become a skulking, withered impostor, a shadow of the behemoth it once was.
United are in the grip of Sick Club Syndrome. Chaos is everywhere, from the indecision and lack of judgment exposed by the controversies over Mason Greenwood, Antony and Jadon Sancho to the lack of direction accentuated by the increasingly cynical and self-interested ownership of the Glazer family.
United look like a team going backwards fast, a club that no longer knows right from wrong, a club that has lost its identity, a club whose ground is called the Theatre of Dreams but stopped being that a long time ago, a club that has had one false start after another since Sir Alex Ferguson retired but can never quite locate the way it used to be.
The reality of their decline was strengthened by their collision with a Brighton team who epitomise so much that is good about football and have become the most accomplished ball-playing side in the Premier League. Under their manager, Roberto De Zerbi, they have become a team that the rest of football gazes upon in awe and studies in classrooms.
There were long periods of their 3-1 victory when Brighton toyed with United. There were long periods when United could not get anywhere near them. Brighton are so brave in possession and so assured that it feels like an education and a privilege every time you watch them. They were mesmerising yesterday.
Brighton completed a third consecutive Premier League victory over Manchester United as Roberto de Zerbi’s impressive visitors secured a deserved 3-1 win
United have lost three Premier League matches in their opening five games this season – amid struggles on and off the pitch
Everything feels wrong at Manchester United as Erik ten Hag’s side suffered another crushing defeat in the Premier League
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As United fall, Brighton rise. They will play their first ever game in Europe this week when they entertain AEK Athens at the Amex on Thursday night in the Europa League. They are a team players want to play for. Ansu Fati, once hailed as the successor to Lionel Messi before injuries intervened, came off the bench to make his debut yesterday and nearly scored late on.
Everything is imbued with optimism at Brighton. Everything feels as if it is decaying at United. Not just the bricks and mortar at Old Trafford. Erik ten Hag, who made such a fine start at the club last season, is fighting to maintain his authority and build any kind of identity in their play. The patience of fans is already starting to wear thin.
That discontent burst into the open here when Ten Hag substituted new signing Rasmus Hojlund midway through the second half and replaced him with Anthony Martial. The crowd reacted to that with a loud chorus of jeers. What is Martial still doing at the club? Why is he still playing an active part? He is a prime example of the lack of progress at United.
It was the first time United have conceded more than one goal in four successive league games since 1979 and their worst start since 1989. They are out of the title race and, at the moment, they do not even look like promising candidates to make the top four.
They play Bayern Munich and Harry Kane – who they failed to try to sign – in Germany on Wednesday night, which may not offer much respite. Now Ten Hag has to try to repair the problems that are mounting up. He can blame the ‘no good culture’ he inherited at the club but excuses have a shelf life for every boss.
Inevitably, much of the build-up to the game focussed on who would not be playing for United. Sancho, who accused Ten Hag of making him a ‘scapegoat’ a fortnight ago, has been banished and made to train on his own at the academy facilities at Carrington.
Sancho has, apparently, refused to apologise to Ten Hag. Unless he outlasts the manager, his prospects at the club do not look good. When Ten Hag was asked before the game whether Sancho would ever play for United again, he said he didn’t know.
‘He is not available, so in this moment, he is not important, because he can’t contribute.’ No sign of a thaw there.
Joao Pedro’s brilliant strike from outside the box added a third for Brighton as Man United goalkeeper Andre Onana (middle) was left scrambing
United initially thought they had pulled themselves level before Rasmus Hojlund’s (middle) goal was chalked off by VAR
United’s players cut dejected figures as Brighton inflicted a first home defeat on the Red Devils since they won at the ground last season
There was no Antony, either, as he fights accusations made by three women, accusations he denies. And new signings Sofyan Amrabat and Mason Mount both took their seats in the directors’ box as they continue to struggle with injury.
That meant that Ten Hag chose to play Scott McTominay out of position on the right side of midfield. McTominay is a fine player but he is never likely to provide much width. It meant a lot of work for Diogo Dalot, who had his hands full with the attacking threat of Kaoru Mitoma.
But despite all their woes, United started well. Even though Hojlund was making his first start for the club since his summer move from Atalanta, Rashford was United’s most dangerous attacker by a distance. Brighton might be a composed side but Rashford’s pace and ability discomforted them.
He wriggled through the visiting defence after a few minutes but could not get any power behind his shot and Jason Steele kicked it clear. Soon afterwards, United nearly took the lead with a breathtaking team move.
United academy graduate Hannibal Mejbri (right) celebrated scoring his first senior goal for his boyhood club
Pascal Gross doubled Brighton’s lead as United slumped to a new low in front of a disappointed home crowd on Saturday
Manchester United(4-1-3-2): Onana, Dalot, Lindelof, Martinez (Wan-Bissaka 85′), Reguilon (Garnacho 85′), Casemiro (Mejbri 64′), McTominay (Pellistir 85′), Eriksen, Fernandes, Rashford, Hojlund (Martial 64′)
Subs unused: Bayindir, Maguire, Evans, Gore
Goal: Mejbri 73′
Booked: Fernandes, Mejbri
Manager: Erik ten Hag
Brightonl (4-2-3-1): ) Steele, Lamptey (Milner 77′), Dunk, Van Hecke, Veltman, Gross, Dahoud (Gilmour 77′), Adingra (Ferguson 85′), Lallana (Fati 64′), Mitoma, Welbeck (Pedro 64′)
Subs unused: Verbruggen, Julio, Webster, Baleba
Goal: Welbeck 20′ Gross 53′ Pedro 71′
Booked: Van Hecke, Lamptey
Manager: Roberto de Zerbi
Christian Eriksen tricked one opponent with a feint and then made space for himself with a beautiful drag-back turn before spreading the ball wide to Rashford. Rashford whipped in a low cross but Hojlund got his feet mixed up as he tried to meet it and fluffed the chance.
Brighton soon punished them for that miss. It was a typically mesmerising move. Danny Welbeck burst forward from midfield after 20 minutes and spread the ball wide to Simon Adingra, Adingra crossed low, Adam Lallana sold Lisandro Martinez a dummy and Welbeck arrived to dispatch his shot emphatically past Andre Onana.
The Brighton fans in the corner of the ground loved that. They taunted the home support with the memory of Welbeck’s Manchester heritage. ‘Danny Welbeck,’ they sang joyously, ‘he left ‘cos you’re ****.’
Rashford came close to an equaliser when Dalot pulled the ball back from the byline into his path but this shot cannoned to safety off a defender. Ten minutes before half time, the England forward nearly scored again. He controlled a superb pass from Casemiro and cut inside Jan Paul van Hecke but his shot flew up off the feet of Joel Veltman and hit the angle of post and crossbar.
United thought they had equalised just before the break. Yet again, Rashford was the instigator. He darted past challenges to the byline and cut the ball back for Hojlund, who squeezed it into the corner of the net. Hojlund celebrated with gusto but VAR showed that the ball had gone into touch just before Rashford’s cross.
It was a cruel blow for United and eight minutes after half time, they fell further behind. Mitoma took the ball down on his chest and played the ball inside to Tariq Lamptey. Lamptey shifted the ball cleverly from one foot to the other and found Pascal Gross just inside the box. Gross fooled Martinez with a dummy and curled his shot beyond Onana.
Infected by the chaos off the pitch, United are a club in crisis on it now, too and have to find a solution to their struggles
A penny, at this point, for the thoughts of Harry Maguire, who was, of course, sitting on the bench. Martinez, one of many ahead of Maguire in the United pecking order, had been made to look distinctly foolish for both Brighton goals. He was ordinary throughout the game. It was the kind of performance Maguire would be vilified for.
Brighton were in their pomp now. Twenty minutes later, they went further ahead. Lamptey played another perfectly weighted pass into the path of Joao Pedro, who had just come on as a substitute and looks like yet another clever signing by Brighton.
Joao Pedro hit the shot first time and it curled away from Onana, who got a hand to it but could not save it, even though he probably should have done. ‘Can we play you every week?’ the Brighton fans sang. They had, of course, inflicted United’s last home league defeat on them on the opening day of last season.
Before Onana made a superb save to deny Fati a fourth Brighton goal in the closing seconds, Hannibal, who had only just come on, had pulled a goal back for United and salvaged a modicum of pride. But not enough to obscure the awkward truth: infected by the chaos off the pitch, United are a club in crisis on it now, too.