In what was one of the worst Manchester United performances in the last decade, Manchester United lost to Brighton for the second time in a calendar year. A result was almost salvaged after Marouane Fellaini won the Red Devils a penalty in the 90th-minute. But it was too little too late.
After going down two goals in the first half, Lukaku managed to claw back a goal, giving the United faithful hope. Unfortunately, a rash Eric Bailly tackle on the stroke of half-time saw referee Kevin Friend award a penalty to the home team. Pascal Gross made no mistake from 12 yards, giving his team a two-goal lead heading into the break. The score stayed fixed at 3-1 until Pogba converted the penalty won by Fellaini in stoppage time.
What went wrong?
Why did Jose’s team falter? Poor defending was certainly an issue, as Glen Murray slipped past Lindelof for the first Brighton goal. Shane Duffy was poorly marked on the second and Eric Bailly carelessly handed the home team shot from the spot. Nobody can deny that the defensive partnership let the team down, but these issues shouldn’t have surfaced in the first place. Manchester United’s midfield was absolutely shambolic for 90 minutes, allowing Brighton opportunities to get the ball forward into dangerous positions.
At half-time, Mourinho boldly made two substitutions, replacing a lackluster Mata and underwhelming Pereira for Rashford and Lingard. Rashford managed to make some penetrating runs, but the delivery from the midfield still wasn’t good enough. Lingard’s presence went relatively unnoticed.
Manchester United dominated 67% of possession during the game but made little use of it. Of 594 passes, 521 of those were short. When attempting to play forward, there was either no outlet available or the ball was played far too long for the oncoming attacker.
It was the same story for most of the match. Mourinho’s men swung the ball around the backline while getting pushed back by a high pressing Brighton. When no other options seemed open, a lack of patience and creativity kicked in. No options in the middle of the park resulted in the ball sent over Lukaku’s head towards goalkeeper Mat Ryan.
On the 60th minute mark, Mourinho finally subbed off Anthony Martial. Outside of the first few minutes, the Frenchman rarely threatened Brighton’s Martin Montoya. In 60 minutes, he only made one successful dribble and was dispossessed three times.
On comes Fellaini
After Fellaini took Martial’s place in the lineup, the game started to change. Within 30 minutes, the Belgian won five aerial duals, more than any other United player during the match. His physical presence up top provided a feasible outlet for United’s defenders. With him on the field, the Red Devils bypassed the buildup stage of the attack and went right into chance creation. Unfortunately, the chances were never created, aside from the penalty won by Fellaini himself.
So, what does this mean? Should we be playing the longball every game? Of course not. We are a much better team than that. At least I’d like to think we are. But it was much earlier than the 60th-minute mark when the game needed a savior.
It always annoys me when fans groan at, and ridicule, Marouane Fellaini. They claim he isn’t a good enough footballer to wear the Manchester United red. True, he isn’t world class quality, but he can bloody make a difference. It’s not his fault he’s good at winning the ball in the air. But we can’t expect him to go out each day and perform like Ronaldo or Messi, can we? Sure, blame Mourinho for the tactics, but you can’t blame the player for doing what he does best.
I’m not saying I want Fellaini to start every game, and I don’t necessarily want him on the field every game either. I’m just saying until we can figure out what the hell is going on in the midfield, thumping the ball up to his chest isn’t a bad choice. It works for Pete’s sake.