After expressing early-season concern for Chris Hughton and Brighton after their wretched defeat at Watford, it’s only right to eat humble pie when they out-think and outclass Manchester United. One of the hallmarks of a weekly column is that it can make you look stupid, but even optimistic Brighton supporters didn’t see this display coming.
Last week, Hughton said he was “wondering what had happened” after defeat. Eight days later and Jose Mourinho was the shell-shocked manager. The focus was inevitably on United after such a shambolic performance and defeat – and that’s entirely appropriate given the lasting impact it might have – but Hughton deserves great praise for the win, not least because he answered the strongest criticism of his management.
The accusation – from Brighton fans as well as neutrals – is that Hughton’s in-game management is too often found wanting. He is not proactive enough to change the course of matches, too tactically cautious and when Brighton get a lead he can too often be very defensive and invite pressure. Ask Norwich City supporters and they will tell you that the same issues undermined his tenure at Carrow Road.
The manner in which Hughton instructed his players to press for a second goal immediately after their first was a piece of brave and inspired game management. Pascal Gross, Solly March and Anthony Knockaert swarmed over their opponents in a three-minute blitz of energy that forced the second goal. United’s players were overwhelmed. They are not used to a team making them feel so uncomfortable.
If the lack of second-half onslaught from Manchester United also surprised, Brighton deserve credit here too. Brighton did not have a shot on target after the break, but they also did not collapse in on themselves and invite United to overrun them.
Of course Brighton ceded possession after the break, but that was the original plan anyway. March and Knockaert, both of whom you might expect to be substituted for defenders in the final 20 minutes, played the full 90 minutes and stuck to Luke Shaw and Ashley Young.
Glenn Murray, whose finish for the opening goal was more deft than we have come to expect from an ageing target man, was heroic as the lone striker. He ran the channels, won aerial duels and generally made a bloody nuisance of himself. But when he was finally substituted, largely because he was on a yellow card and had committed a whopping nine fouls, Hughton chose to bring on another striker in Jurgen Locadia.
Brighton have had an intriguing summer, signing a clutch of new players from abroad who filled their bench on Sunday. There are still valid questions about whether he can integrate Yves Bissouma, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Bernardo, Florin Andone et al without upsetting the balance of the team.
But here was proof that the morale of Brighton’s squad has not been dented by a host of potential upgrades being signed. The new kids face a tough battle to push the old ones off the playground. Nobody gets dropped after beating Manchester United.