With their slender win over Brighton, Manchester United set a new club record of seven consecutive home victories to start the season. But few, not least Jose Mourinho, will have left Old Trafford reflecting positively on the way they set that record.
After a free-scoring start to the season, the goals have dried up somewhat for United. The Red Devils have netted 28 times this term but they have scored only seven in their last six matches, with more than half of those coming last week against Newcastle. Mourinho addressed this concern on Friday.
“A team that plays like we do, I think we should score more goals than we do,” said the manager, reflecting on his team’s blunted edge. As well as voicing his concerns about the collective, he was happy to single out Henrikh Mkhitaryan for criticism – all deserved – but almost any of his fellow attackers may rightly fear they could be next after another insipid display against the Seagulls.
The first half was a bad as United have been at home this term – perhaps only Huddersfield was worse all season. It was the second poor start at home in a week; they were stifled by Newcastle for long periods of the first half last week and they were lucky to lead at the break thanks to a couple of headers.
“I hope to start better,” Mourinho said before kick-off. “The last match we had a really bad 20 minutes and we gave Newcastle an advantage.”
The manager was not granted his wish. The only difference between Newcastle and Brighton was that the Seagulls couldn’t take advantage of the couple of decent openings they created. Their two shots on target during the first period weren’t their best opportunities. Those came when Anthony Knockaert flashed a ball across goal with his swinger – his left foot would surely have found a team-mate – before Glenn Murray barely failed to reach a flick-on from a set-piece.
Brighton couldn’t seize their chances but, also unlike Newcastle, they had little problem keeping the back door shut when United did probe. United took 44 minutes before creating a big opportunity, or rather two, either of which should have been taken when Lukaku headed from point-blank range straight at Mat Ryan, before Paul Pogba did the same with his feet. The rest of the Australia keeper’s afternoon consisted of routine catching practice.
Prior to that small spark, United were everything that would infuriate Mourinho: slow, sloppy and lacking in unpredictability. Marcus Rashford lost possession 17 times before the break but he was by no means the only player culpable.
Mourinho compromised with Rashford in his initial selection. If he cannot play through the middle, then the United forward is certainly more comfortable on the left but with Anthony Martial given another start, Rashford started centrally behind Lukaku with Juan Mata on the right. That experiment lasted 20 turgid minutes, and neither could argue with eventually being replaced – indeed, both he and Mata were fortunate to emerge for the second half.
Switching Mata and Rashford early on was the first of five changes Mourinho made throughout the afternoon to the shape and make-up of his attack. When he reflects, not one of those forward lines begs to be picked from the off at Watford on Tuesday.
Lukaku will likely lead the line again after what was statistically one of his most average performances of the season. Today, out of the 13 Premier League matches he’s played this term, the Belgian ranked between sixth and ninth for touches, touches in the opposition box, shots and shots on target. But, overall, Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy had him shackled.
A large part of his, and United’s, problem is the supply line. Despite the pace in their attack, too often United have lacked the necessary subtlety to crack stubborn defences. With wingers as full-backs as well as forwards as wingers, Lukaku should expect plenty of quality coming from wide, but he had only one delivery today that he should be expected to work with.
If Lukaku is being boxed by opponents, perhaps United should try a different approach. Thirteen of the 16 crosses they tried in the first half were dealt with by a Brighton defender, and every one of them was flat or played from a deeper point. Not once when United approached the byline in either half did they pull the ball back. That pass was a staple of the Louis van Gaal era, to the point of tedium, though now the balance appears to have swung completely the other way.
With the quality United have in their attack, a little invention is not too much to ask. Of course, when the goal came, it was the result of a wicked deflection. The Brighton defence had an otherwise all-too-comfortable trip to Old Trafford for Mourinho’s liking.
One bonus for the manager came at the other end. Victor Lindelof was handed only his second Premier League start and the centre-half appeared satisfyingly comfortable in his defensive duties. He also played a large part in geeing up the hosts when it seemed like Mourinho’s half-time team-talk had failed, with a thunderous tackle on Knockaert. That, and the subsequent row over United perfectly reasonably refusing to put the ball out of play for the physio to come on, roused the home support and seemed to inspire his teammates to up the tempo and turn the screw on Brighton, which eventually led to their lucky strike.
But with his forward line, Mourinho will be no less concerned than before the game. The manager receives plenty of stick when he keeps the handbrake on, but when it is released, as it was again today with Rashford and Martial in the same attack, then such an array of talent has to justify their individual reputations and the fading faith Mourinho has in them.