Manchester United vs Brighton and Hove Albion: Three Talking Points
Manchester United got the job done against Brighton and Hove Albion on a cold Saturday night at Old Trafford. United pulled two wins from three in what was touted as a season-defining week. Unfortunately the loss did all the defining.
The match itself was stale. Romelu Lukaku opened the scoring in the first half from a Nemanja Matic cross. The Serbian himself headed the second home from an Ashley Young free kick. Brighton tried but couldn't score. Here are three talking points from the game.
After Sevilla had knocked the Red Devils out of the Champions League at Old Trafford it was pessimism all around. Mourinho was animated. Fans were angry. Rightly so. But as poor as United's midweek performance was, there was no time for sulking. Mourinho's men faced another challenge. The FA Cup is United's last chance for a trophy this season. Brighton stood in the way.
The Mancs got the job done, albeit in unspectacular manner. United created four clear-cut chances. Two were converted. A series fo one-twos between Juan Mata and Anthony Martial forced a save from Tim Krul. So did a near-post shot from Chris Smalling off a scrambled corner although replays proved the officials wrongfully ruled it a goal kick.
Otherwise it was all flat. United were in control for the majority. The team frustrated an apoplectic Mourinho with slow build-up play. Despite "being aggressive and always in front to create space for the midfielders," then laying off for Nemanja Matic to send the ball into Romelu Lukaku at the far post, Luke Shaw was subbed off at half-time. In his post-match presser, Mourinho cited that specific lack of aggression as his primary reason for bringing the Englishman off.
The manager accused other players of under-performing too. Mourinho's statements about 'football heritage' seemed to be true as three of his signings were the best players: Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic, and Eric Bailly.
The effort was sufficient to get past Brighton but it might not be against the likes of Tottenham or Chelsea. Manchester United must step up in the next round.
Brighton lacked the cutting edge
Chris Hughton's plan was simple. Sit deep and hit United on the counterattack. The Seagulls began positively. Solly March and Jurgen Locadia saw a good deal of possession in the final third. Pascal Gross linked everything. The fullbacks pushed high. Hughton left both in the game. Defensively, Brighton contained United well but couldn't deal with the two far-post crosses delivered from United's left side.
The visitors took 17 shots, virtually all from distance. A half-dozen were on target. Lewis Dunk's header from just outside the six and Locadia's curling volley were the most dangerous but Sergio Romero wasn't troubled. Leonardo Ulloa was isolated, as was Glenn Murray when he finally came on for the Argentine.
Hughton dropped Murray and Jose Izquierdo to give much-needed game time to Ulloa and Locadia. Izquierdo came on late to provide the direct pace Solly March could not.
The decision to drop Murray in such a big game seemed peculiar. The 34-year-old would have had two weeks to recover given the international break. Perhaps Hughton thought he would be too isolated and that Ulloa would be better able to come back for the ball or press Smalling and Bailly. With 13 goals this season, the Englishman might have provided the finishing quality Brighton needed.
The South Coast outfit took the game to United in their best FA Cup run since 1983 but just fell short. The Seagulls are 12th in the Premier League table with 34 points. They can now push for a finish in the top half.
Romelu Lukaku steps up once again
Romelu Lukaku has had a fantastic start to life at Manchester United, scoring 25 and assisting seven in 44 appearances. There was an extended goal drought in November and December but the Belgian is whetting his appetite again. His overall gameplay has been on upward trajectory since August. He is a more complete striker than the pure scorer the club bought from Everton.
People criticized his on-field intelligence, link and hold up play, his performances in the big games and even his scoring. He has answered every question positively. The Belgian has directly been involved in 14 goals in his last 14 appearances. Even against Sevilla in midweek, he was the only United player who showed the desire to win. Lukaku has earned well-deserved praise from his manager as well as the Old Trafford faithful in the process.
Against Brighton last night, he ran the channels, powered his way through defenders, involved others, and scored the all-important opener. United have their talisman.