This was the worst possible start for Manchester United under Eric ten Haag. All the optimism of pre‑season and a new manager curdled as Old Trafford proved a theater of the Dutchman’s worst nightmares.
Employed on a ticket of “proactive” (his word) pressing football the precise opposite was on show until a rally that drew a farcical consolation but proved too late as it came in the closing 22 minutes.
Brighton gave the Dutchman an uncompromising welcome to the Premier League. Leandro Trossard, Danny Welbeck and Pascal Gross were their stars in an impressive visit from Graham Potter’s men. At any moment it seemed as if they would score so Ten Hag and his players will have to rouse themselves for next weekend’s visit to Brentford before hosting Liverpool in the next home fixture.
In describing the task before him afterwards as a “hell of a job” Ten Hag succinctly summed up a decline that began nine years ago when Sir Alex Ferguson departed.
The 52-year-old’s side might have scored as early as the sixth minute. Jadon Sancho moved inside and poked the ball to Scott McTominay, who would be outmuscled all afternoon in his berth on the right wing. He found Bruno Fernandes but the Portuguese blazed over from a few yards out.
Before this, 15 seconds in, Diogo Dalot had dithered, allowing Trossard to fly. He hit the side netting but moments after the miss by Fernandes the Brighton No. 11 was gifted the ball in a similar area and once more United escaped.
Before this opener protests from United fans had caused the club shop to be closed as a crowd thronged in front of the megastore: this will have been noted by Avram Glazer, a co‑owner making a rare visit and who watched on from the directors’ box. For his inaugural Premier League XI, Ten Hag solved the problem of Anthony Martial’s enforced absence with a hamstring injury by selecting Christian Eriksen at a false 9, but the ploy did not work.
Considering Ten Hag has drilled his charges to close down from day one, the lax marking will have infuriated: one Brighton attack had Trossard dallying in a crowded area before chipping the ball towards Moisés Caicedo with Lisandro Martínez, like Eriksen making his Premier League debut for United, half asleep. When, later, Alexis McAllister unleashed a shot at goal Eriksen did press but this opening occurred because Trossard was again allowed room down to cross.
He had a pivotal part in a Brighton opener that, too, derived from United’s leakiness. A McTominay surge was the first mistake as he ran into a Brighton sandwich. From here the ball was threaded by Trossard to the effervescent Welbeck and when he tapped over a cross Gross, unmarked, rolled in. Cut to Ten Hag shaking his head and Cristiano Ronaldo, on the bench, raising his arms: either in disdain or encouragement.
Next, though, more despair for those in red. From along Brighton’s left Trossard fed Caicedo. He shrugged off a passive Eriksen and the ball was swept upfield in a sequence featuring Gross, Adam Lallana and Solly March. The latter shot at goal, David de Gea palmed out and Gross, following in, doubled his tally and the lead, Fred the latest United bystander.
When the interval arrived Ten Hag, surely, had curt words prepared. If so the Dutchman still had to watch McTominay get in another muddle and Martínez lose Welbeck, whose header should have made it 3-0.
The name missing from the starting lineup was Ronaldo’s. The manager stated that only playing 45 minutes of last Sunday’s friendly with Rayo Vallecano plus “10 days” of training was behind him naming the wantedaway forward as a substitute.
Seven minutes into the second half, the manager turned to the man 15 years his junior, Fred making way, as Ronaldo went to his favored No. 9 berth and Eriksen moved back to operate as a deep-lying string-puller. Martínez was enduring a minor shocker and this would have become a major one but for Paul Tierney’s leniency when the centre-back shoved Welbeck over in the area. It appeared a penalty but Martínez escaped as the referee ruled no foul had been committed.
Marcus Rashford, too, was poor in an unwanted echo of last season’. One regulation control pushed the ball out and he missed two golden chances from close range. The first had Ronaldo flagged – wrongly – for offside so VAR would have allowed it.
There was a positive moment when United finally struck. A scramble at a corner had the ball hitting Dalot – possibly on the arm – with Harry Maguire involved too and maybe offside before it went in off Mac Allister: VAR ruled this fair and United had a lifeline. As the home crowd roared their men on, a curving Dalot shot was fumbled by Brighton’s keeper, Robert Sánchez as, now, Brighton had to hang on.
When Donny van de Beek replaced McTominay he passed a note, presumably from Ten Hag, to Maguire. Whatever he said did not work as Brighton, at the final whistle, were completely worth the victory. For United this may be yet another long season.