Manchester United tighten their grip on second place and their status as the Premier League’s next best behind the champions-in-waiting, but displays like this narrow win over Brighton and Hove Albion leave you wondering whether that is a fair reflection of their quality.
Mason Greenwood’s late diving header turned a poor performance into three points and capitalised on a weekend that saw Leicester City and Chelsea both lose. Look at the table and qualification for the Champions League feels secure. Watch United play, though, and it still feels too early to give any guarantees.
Not for the first time this season, Brighton were unlucky. Danny Welbeck’s instinctive finish put Graham Potter’s side ahead and was deserved, with the visitors not only limiting United’s attack but causing plenty of problems themselves. Dean Henderson, trusted to start ahead of David de Gea in goal, was tested.
United improved after the break, equalising through Marcus Rashford before Greenwood’s second league goal of the campaign forced his side in front, but this still felt like the type of evenly-matched contest that would not have broken Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s way on another day. A tight VAR call on a penalty decision that went against Welbeck and in favour of Harry Maguire could easily have gone the other way, for example.
Solskjaer has experienced plenty of games like this over the course of the season. This was United’s tenth league win by a one-goal margin and perhaps their knack of eventually coming out on top in tight affairs is a special, repeatable quality that speaks to their superior mentality. But should three points come the hard way this often?
This was Solskjaer’s most significant starting line-up of the campaign so far, one that might dictate the first name on the United team sheet in years to come. For only the second time in seven seasons, De Gea started a Premier League game on the substitutes bench.
Henderson retained his place after his six straight appearances before the international break, but except for December’s return to former club Sheffield United, this was the first time he has played when his rival might have expected to start.
Solskjaer insisted in his round of pre-match interviews that United have “two No 1s” but this was an indication that one is more equal than the other. Thursday’s Europa League quarter-final against Granada will offer us more clues but on this evidence, Henderson would appear to be first-choice.
United’s new No 1 would have liked to celebrate his promotion with a clean sheet but kept Brighton at bay for only 13 minutes. To be fair, he turned away Welbeck’s initial headed attempt from point-blank range but sent the ball right back to the former United striker, who made no mistake with his follow-up from even closer.
Brighton were ruthless in targeting perceived United weaknesses. Having trapped Aaron Wan-Bissaka under several far-post crosses at the Amex in September’s reverse fixture, Neal Maupay did so again to set up Welbeck’s goal. It remains the glaring weakness in the full-back’s defensive game.
Henderson soon found himself in Brighton’s crosshairs, too, with a series of in-swinging corners played right on top of the United goalkeeper in a crowded six-yard box. He failed to collect one cleanly then spilled another, sparking panic among the United defence until the ball was eventually scrambled clear.
At least Henderson was alert for these dead-ball situations, tipping one Lewis Dunk header over. Later, he could do nothing but watch as Jakub Moder, the scorer of Poland’s goal at Wembley on Wednesday night, dragged a volley wide of his left-hand post after slack marking by the United defence on a corner.
Aside from an early Greenwood volley that smacked against the base of the post, United had created next to nothing. Their first shot on target only came at the start of the second half. Even then, Rashford’s dipping effort from range was comfortably held.
Only just back from injury, Rashford looked fatigued. Edinson Cavani had no influence on proceedings. Greenwood was game but is enduring a dreadful year in front of goal. All of this was exacerbated by the absence of Anthony Martial, who sprained his knee while away with France and could be ruled out for the remainder of the season, Solskjaer revealed.
Yet the talent within United’s ranks means that one moment is all they require to turn a poor performance around. It came shortly after the hour mark, with Joel Veltman’s poor touch playing Bruno Fernandes clear inside Brighton’s half. An agricultural challenge by Veltman came too late to prevent Fernandes’ pass from reaching Rashford, who opened his body to produce a fine finish and equalise.
Rashford departed soon after and headed straight for the tunnel, walking somewhat gingerly. If that was a concern, at least Greenwood’s first league goal of the calendar year offers greater optimism.
Fernandes’ far-post cross was pinged back in the same direction by Paul Pogba, who had been a muted presence up until that point. Greenwood dived ahead of substitute Donny van de Beek to make the telling connection. His header was ever so slightly out of Robert Sanchez’s reach, then deflected in off Ben White’s knee.
Once again, Brighton would not get the result their performance deserved. United, though, are having no such problems.
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