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Manchester United fringe players blow chance to impress at Brighton
Last Updated: 05/05/18 8:50am
If Manchester United's trip to Brighton was a chance for players to audition for an FA Cup final place, many badly blew their moment, writes Peter Smith...
"While there might be seven to eight positons fixed, there are others where players can put themselves in the frame," said Gary Neville ahead of kick-off.
Manchester United may be almost assured of a second-place finish in the Premier League, but with an FA Cup final fast approaching, there was plenty to play for at Brighton.
Or at least that was the idea.
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Instead, a handful of players could well have played themselves out of Jose Mourinho's plans for the Wembley showpiece with Chelsea.
With Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez injured, and Jesse Lingard back on the bench, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Juan Mata started in attack.
That selection will have pleased many of Mourinho's critics who have called for more game time for those players. But all three failed to do themselves justice.
Maybe now you understand why some players played more than others and you don't ask all the time why A, B and C didn't play more.
"Maybe now you understand why some players played more than others and you don't ask all the time why A, B and C didn't play more," Mourinho told Sky Sports afterwards.
Rashford, who was unnamed but clearly referenced by Mourinho in that damning post-match appraisal, struggled as the central striker of the three.
The 20-year-old has often made an impression from central areas as a substitute this season but given the duty of leading the line at the Amex, Rashford gave up possession far too easily, was consistently out-muscled by Brighton's centre-backs and, crucially, dithered and then chose the wrong option when he had the chance to tee up Martial.
"Rashford has got to do better, protect the ball better, use the ball better," said Neville, while Mourinho felt the performance justified his reliance on Lukaku this season: "Why always Lukaku? Why always Lukaku? You have the answer why always Lukaku."
But it wasn't just Rashford looking off the pace. Martial was ineffective, failing to hit the target with his three shots and losing the ball on 20 occasions - only outdone in that department by a poor Paul Pogba. Mata, despite recording four key passes, couldn't find the method or the magic required to unlock this well organised Brighton backline.
"It wasn't good enough," said Mourinho. "The players that replaced others didn't perform at a good level. And when individuals don't perform at a good level it makes it difficult for the team to play at a good level."
Further back, United's build up play was slow and ponderous, with Marouane Fellaini, the hero on Sunday with his last-gasp winner against Arsenal, unable to inject impetus from midfield.
Had he not strayed offside in the third minute and legally turned in Rashford's free-kick perhaps United's performance as a whole would have been different.
But the Belgian - who dropped too deep, away from the areas where he can be an aerial threat - was withdrawn on 68 minutes along with the anonymous Matteo Darmian.
"I wouldn't say I'm disappointed, because I know them," concluded Mourinho. It was a brutal verdict. A damning assessment. And one which makes you wonder whether these players can convince their manager to reconsider his view.
"It felt like it was the final straw for him. He's going to make some big changes in that dressing room," said Neville.
It could be a busy summer transfer window ahead.
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