MANCHESTER — The Erik ten Hag era at Manchester United has promised a lot since the former Ajax manager arrived at the end of the 2021-22 season, but the 2022-23 season has begun with the same kind of performance and the same kind of result.
Cristiano Ronaldo began the game on the bench and Pascal Gross scored twice in the first half to give Brighton a lead they’d hang onto even after a second-half own goal by Alexis Mac Allister. Brighton’s 2-1 win marks their first victory ever at Old Trafford.
Here is Rob Dawson with reaction and ratings from today’s match.
Ten Hag era off to the worst possible start
And just like that, the optimism generated by a positive summer has disappeared. Nobody expected Ten Hag to magically fix things overnight, but there was hope that opening games against Brighton and Brentford offered the chance to at least get off to a good start. Apparently not.
The visitors went in at half-time 2-0 up thanks to two goals from Gross, but it could have been more. United were better after half-time and pulled one back after an Alexis Mac Allister own goal, following some questionable goalkeeping by Robert Sanchez, but Brighton were still well worthy of the three points.
Sunday’s match is a harsh reality check for Ten Hag. His squad still feels at least two players short, with just three weeks to go before the transfer deadline, and he desperately needs a central midfielder — whether that’s Frenkie de Jong or someone else. But even without reinforcements, the Dutchman still fielded a team that should have been able to beat Brighton; as it happened, Graham Potter’s side showed the transition to a new style of football is going to take time. The problem at United, however, is that they are never more than one game away from a crisis, and Ten Hag is going to learn that very quickly this week.
Ronaldo made to wait
With Anthony Martial sidelined because of a hamstring injury, Cristiano Ronaldo looked in line to start, but Ten Hag kept the 37-year-old on the bench in favour of employing Christian Eriksen as a false No. 9. Ten Hag explained it was because Ronaldo had missed most of preseason and had managed only 45 minutes in the summer friendlies, but Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez haven’t had much more playing time this summer and were both picked to start.
After a disastrous first half that saw United booed off, it wasn’t long before Ronaldo was on in place of Fred, and with the Portugal forward up front, Ten Hag’s team looked far more dangerous.
Ten Hag and Ronaldo already appears to be an uneasy union. There are doubts about whether Ronaldo can press in the way his manager wants, but United are short of options, and he is as close as it gets to guaranteed goals. Speaking at a news conference on Friday, Ten Hag suggested Martial might be available again soon, so it will be interesting to see whether Ronaldo is again left on the bench when United travel to Brentford next weekend. It’s always a big call to leave him out, but particularly for a new manager.
Potter furthers his England chances
It’s possible that Gareth Southgate’s time as England manager could come to an end after the World Cup in Qatar, and if the FA find themselves looking for a new coach, Potter will be high up on their list of candidates.
Potter doesn’t have vast resources at Brighton — in fact, this summer he has said goodbye to Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella, two key players — but season after season he produces a team that’s better than the sum of its parts. They have a clearly defined way of playing and are well-coached, which makes them formidable opponents for almost any team in the Premier League.
Gross’ second goal here was one of the best you’ll see all season. Brighton worked the ball from their own corner flag with a series of incisive passes and some clever movement, leaving United’s high press in tatters all over the pitch.
Potter guided his team to a ninth-place finish last season, but if they carry on playing like this, they should be setting their sights even higher. The downside for Brighton is that any more success might see them lose their manager to England — although that might be on the cards already.
Manchester United: David de Gea 5, Diogo Dalot 5, Harry Maguire 5, Lisandro Martinez 7, Luke Shaw 5; Fred 5, Scott McTominay 5, Christian Eriksen 6; Marcus Rashford 5, Jadon Sancho 5, Bruno Fernandes 5.
Subs: Cristiano Ronaldo 6, Donny Van de Beek 6, Tyrell Malacia 6, Anthony Elanga 6, Alejandro Garnacho 6.
Brighton: Robert Sanchez 7; Joel Veltman 7, Adam Webster 7, Lewis Dunk 7; Solly March 7, Alexis Mac Allister 7, Moises Caicedo 8, Leandro Trossard 7; Adam Lallana 7, Pascal Gross 8, Danny Welbeck 8.
Subs: Tariq Lamptey 6, Enock Mwepu 6, Levi Colwill 6, Deniz Undav 6.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Pascal Gross, Brighton — Brighton were fantastic in the first half, and Gross was the epitome of their work rate and tactical efficiency, scoring twice from close range after good moves — the second in particular — had torn United apart.
WORST: Fred, Man United — United fans arriving at Old Trafford for the opening day of the season didn’t want to see Fred and Scott McTominay paired in midfield, but that’s what they got. Fred was lucky to get away with an error early on and was subbed in the second half. He wasn’t alone in having a poor game, but it was a day when nothing went right.
Highlights and notable moments
It was nice to see United explain the thought process behind their lineup decisions via Ten Hag on Twitter … a shame it didn’t work out!
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) August 7, 2022
Meanwhile, this might be the one and only time you see Brighton’s Gross mentioned in the same sentence as Mohamed Salah … but well-earned all the same.
One brings two ✌️
— Premier League (@premierleague) August 7, 2022
After the match: What the managers, players said
“We went into the game positive, we had a good pre-season and it was the worst possible start to be 2-0 down at half-time at Old Trafford. Not good enough. We got a goal back but we huffed and puffed a bit and it’s a bad start for us. … Everyone knew the task. We had a bad season last season. We’ve got a new manager trying to put his philosophy on the team, but when we don’t get it right, we look far too open.” — Man United defender Harry Maguire, speaking to Sky Sports
“t was a great performance and a deserved win. A great way to start. I thought we had an idea of how to attack and when we could we tried to press and put them under pressure. We were positive, brave and the boys gave everything. We have got a good group: they are ambitious, they are not perfect, but they give everything and when you’re a coach, it gives you a chance.”— Brighton manager Graham Potter
“We can’t ask for much more. Three points away from home against Manchester United. It’s a big win for us today. I would love to score more goals against other teams, but always against Man United. I don’t know why! We played really well. the game plan was really good and we stuck to it. We had our chances and were clinical in front of goal.” — Brighton midfielder Pascal Gross
Key Stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
Manchester United were 2-11-4 (W-L-D) last season when conceding the first goal. The 11 losses were their most in a season since 2013-14 (12 losses)
Brighton have scored more goals against Manchester United in their last 2 matches (6) than they had in their previous 7 matches (5)
This is the second time in their last three campaigns that Manchester United lost their opening match of the season (2020-21 vs Crystal Palace, in what was technically Matchweek 2). From 2015-19, they won 5 consecutive Premier League season-openers.
Sunday marked Brighton’s first ever win at Old Trafford; the club was 0-12-2 (W-L-D) in its first 14 visits to Old Trafford in all competitions, including 8 straight losses entering Sunday
Manchester United: Ten Hag has to put this result behind him as United face two tricky games in the weeks ahead, with a trip to Brentford (Aug. 13) followed by the arrival of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool on Aug. 22.
Brighton: After their Old Trafford trip, Potter’s side host Newcastle (Aug. 13) before a trip across the south coast to take on West Ham (Aug. 21).