Erik ten Hag's first Premier League game in charge of Manchester United ended in a 2-1 defeat to Brighton at Old Trafford. Supporters had come in the hope of seeing some progress under the new coach but it was old failings that proved the difference instead...
Sunday 7 August 2022 17:27, UK
"Every game will be a challenge," said Erik ten Hag beforehand. “There will be setbacks and disappointments." He did not have to wait long for the first of them.
Manchester United were deservedly beaten by Brighton in the Dutchman's first game in charge. Fluent football with clever interchanging of positions, this was the football that had been promised at Old Trafford. But the other team were playing it.
Ten Hag will hope to deliver that in time but there was little sign of it here. This was not just about the result. In fact, a 2-1 defeat flattered United. After a promising pre-season and with two new signings in the side, supporters were expecting much more than this.
A new season and a new manager had made for a mood of optimism, United's latest new dawn upon us. Hope was the watchword even as debate about Cristiano Ronaldo's future dominated the agenda.
The Ronaldo scarves were being sold on Sir Matt Busby Way as ever but this was supposed to be Ten Hag's day. His face was on the cover of United We Stand magazine. At United, the speculation never stops, but this was a chance for the football to do the talking.
What it said was that United's problems have not gone away.
There was a boisterous mood initially and some promising attacks in those opening moments under the Manchester sun. When United could counter-attack they looked a threat. But the build-up play was cumbersome, too tentative to stretch this Brighton side.
Fifteen seconds was all it took for the first sign of uncertainty. Diogo Dalot dallied. Leandro Trossard hit the side-netting with his shot. The Portugal defender is said to be in good form but, as Roy Keane had noted of pre-season before kick-off, so what?
United were trying to play differently. David de Gea played 25 passes inside his own half, the second most in a single Premier League game since the days of Louis van Gaal. But it was all a little slow and after the frenzied start belief in that approach began to wane.
"I think it was a good start and after that we dropped down a level," said Ten Hag. "We lacked belief. That cannot happen. Always believe in yourself. They have to deal with the setbacks and they have to believe because they are really good players."
Under the more intense scrutiny of a Premier League game, the idea of Fred as a deep-lying pivot unravelled as he twice surrendered possession inside his own half and might have paid a higher price. Taking care of the ball in that position is everything.
At the back, it was alarming how easily Danny Welbeck was able to latch onto even the more hopeful of Robert Sanchez's launched passes from deep. Harry Maguire backed off and was beaten. Lisandro Martinez tried to compete but found himself outmatched.
There has been much chatter about Martinez's height, his advocates talking of an impressive leap. In possession, he did pick out some clever forward passes. But he was also targeted aerially from the outset and given Brighton's success with it that is likely to continue.
Opting for a higher defensive line when that line includes Maguire is a tactic that had some supporters feeling queasy beforehand but the alternative was just as bad - retreating to their own box. Too often, Brighton players found themselves with time and space.
That is foolish with Trossard around. Dalot's failure to close him down led to the first goal. The Belgian is so creative. He threaded a pass behind the static Maguire and Welbeck was able to cut the ball back to find Pascal Gross at the far post.
Luke Shaw should have been closer. He was not.
The second goal felt like something from the sort of training exercise that Ten Hag is said to be fond of - eleven men lining up against none. Brighton were able to progress the ball from their own left-back position through the thirds with only De Gea getting close.
Booed off at the break, as the frustration intensified it was a reminder that this was not the fresh start that it might have seemed. There were groans as Maguire headed the ball away under no pressure. Roars of displeasure at Marcus Rashford's finishing.
There is baggage here.
Ten Hag was appointed because of his reputation for finding solutions on the training ground as well as in the transfer market. The performances of Rashford and Jadon Sancho were always going to be as interesting as those of the latest acquisitions.
Neither produced their best.
Rashford, in particular, struggled. Confidence is clearly fragile. Seconds into the second half he let a simple pass to escape him. The ball rolled out. His head turned skywards. When Ronaldo presented him with a straightforward finish, he failed to beat Sanchez.
The Ronaldo situation will need to be addressed, of course, but he was not the problem here. That trade-off between short term and long term is something that Ten Hag must consider. He will envision a team without Ronaldo but he must still win games.
Trophies will take time but progress will have to come quicker than that. The supporters need something to believe in. "What they need to do is be defensively solid and make sure the patterns of play are there," Gary Neville had told Sky Sports.
This was a failure on both measures.
David Moyes was once ridiculed for suggesting United should aspire to be like Manchester City but there are worse templates of play for Ten Hag to replicate than this Brighton team. Graham Potter favours a possession game with purpose.
Good football takes time. That was the message from Potter afterwards. "It has been a process for us," he explained. "We took over a team that finished fourth from bottom with a different style of play. But we have managed to keep progressing and with that belief grows. The way you convince people is to win."
For Ten Hag, that time together was the telling factor. "That was the big difference with our opponent," he said in his post-match press conference. "They had their routines, a long time together for coach and team." United's routines are yet to emerge.
A scrappy goal briefly threatened to secure a scarcely-merited equaliser as the atmosphere was cranked up in the closing stages, home supporters willing them on. But while Brighton brought beauty to the game, his United offered only bluster for now.
Even had the second goal come it would not have altered the reality of their plight. On a day that it had been hoped would mark the first step towards a return to the top came familiar failings instead. United's problems - Ten Hag's problems now - remain.