Match Report: Manchester United 2-1 Brighton | Late Greenwood header seals victory for United

A late header from Mason Greenwood saw Manchester United come from behind to see off Brighton & Hove Albion, which saw them build a four point gap to third placed Leicester City in the Premier League.

For large parts of the encounter, United struggled to penetrate Brighton’s defensive block, creating very little in front of goal. However, Greenwood’s late header was enough to collect all three points.

It was an important result for United, who created a four point gap between themselves and third placed Leicester City, and crucially in the race for Champions League qualification next season, an 11 point gap over fifth place Tottenham Hotspur.

Story of the game

United started the match with intensity, dominating possession in the early stages as Brighton were pinned back inside their own half. This was manifested by United’s closest effort of the entire first-half, when Mason Greenwood fired a low, driven half volley against the outside of the post following a half cleared cross.

However, the intensity that United began the game with soon disappeared, as Brighton gained a foothold in the match. The Seagulls soon took the lead in the 12th minute, as their split striker setup came into fruition. The ball was circulated to the right hand side, where forward Neal Maupay delivered an excellent cross into the box, which was met by ex United forward Danny Welbeck, who escaped Aaron Wan-Bissaka at the far post to head goalwards. Dean Henderson produced an excellent stop from point blank range, only for Welbeck to react quickest and prod in the rebound.

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Welbeck’s opener gave Brighton confidence as they continued to grow in the game. Lewis Dunk soon clipped the crossbar after meeting Pascal Gross’ excellent free kick, which highlighted United’s struggles when defending set-pieces.

From then on, United were able to regain control of possession, and the game settled into a familiar pattern which remained throughout; Brighton defending deep, and United relatively stuck of ideas in possession.

Graham Potter’s side were impressive defensively, nullifying United’s attack for almost the entire first-half. The Reds’ best opening came when playmaker Bruno Fernandes teed up Paul Pogba on the edge of the box, only for the Frenchman to shoot far wide of the post.

Despite United’s ball possession, Brighton did pose a threat when they were able to move the ball forward, as they typically do. This was evident on the stroke of half-time, where an excellent sliding challenge from Manchester United captain Harry Maguire prevented Neal Maupay from inside the box after clever feet from Adam Lallana.

From the resulting corner, Polish wing-back Jakob Moder, who netted against England during the international break, saw his half volley flash just wide of the post as Brighton came within inches of adding their second. This once again highlighted United’s inability to defend set-pieces, something that has been evident throughout the season.

The beginning of the second period followed a similar pattern to the majority of the first, as United searched for an equaliser without intensity and pace to their offensive game. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team lacked conviction in the final third and struggled to create chances.

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Out of very little, United found an equaliser in the 62nd minute, when Bruno Fernandes picked up a loose ball in Brighton’s half, drove at the heart of the defence and played in the returning Marcus Rashford, who opened up his body and guided the ball into the corner, beyond Spaniard Robert Sanchez.

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This gave United confidence, as they began to play with intensity and belief that they could go on to take all three points. This was evident when Greenwood flashed a snapshot just wide following a low cross from full-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

Despite United’s newfound belief, Brighton showed the threat they posed on the counter-attack in the 70th minute, as the ball was switched to the alert Maupay on the left, who sent in a low delivery across the face of goal, which Welbeck couldn’t quite connect with. United escaped a VAR penalty check as captain Maguire applied pressure onto Welbeck to prevent him front connecting cleanly to give the visitors the lead once more.

The Red Devil’s pushed for a winner, which almost came 15 minutes from time, when Bruno Fernandes’ shot from outside the box was surprisingly parried by Robert Sanchez. Substitute Daniel James was first to react, as he teed up the off balance Mason Greenwood, who tantalisingly lifted his effort onto the roof of the net.

Solskjær threw on Dutchman Donny Van de Beek, who scored for Netherlands over the International break, to aid United’s search for a winner. Soon after his introduction, the precious goal came, when Van de Beek peeled wide to create space for Fernandes to receive in behind the Brighton defence. The Portuguese playmaker lifted a cross to the far post, where Paul Pogba was arriving. United’s number six volleyed across the face of goal, where forward Mason Greenwood was ready to stoop low and head in United’s second to complete the turnaround.

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Solskjær reacted by bringing Scott McTominay onto the field in attempt to see out the result. Despite a late flurry of set-pieces, United were able to reach the end, and see out an important three points which significantly strengths their top four bid.

Fernandes’ penetrative runs cause Brighton problems

As mentioned throughout, United lacked conviction and creativity in the final third. Brighton defended exceptionally well during the first half, often overloading wide areas to prevent progression down the flanks. This allowed Graham Potter’s side to stifle United’s left side dynamic, which is usually so reliable and effective in creating chances.

However, runs from deep, especially from Bruno Fernandes, caused for problems within Brighton’s defence. This caused for a refreshing change, as Fernandes often drops deep to receive possession when United are struggling to create chances against a low block. This is even more evident when Paul Pogba is on the pitch as the Frenchman is given more license to move into the final third than the double pivot of Scott McTominay and Fred.

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However, Fernandes’ runs in behind provided United with a good balance between players who moved towards and away from the ball in attacks, which is ultimately an important aspect when attacking against deep defences.

This was first evident in the 60th minute, when Pogba had deep possession on the right hand side and instinctively played a wonderful through pass into Fernandes, who had broken past Brighton’s last defensive line. He was impressively met by Brighton goalkeeper Robert Sanchez, who prevented United’s number 18 from equalising.

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However, the penetrative runs in behind really came into fruition when United found their winner. The goal originated from deep possession on the left via full-back Luke Shaw, and as substitute Donny Van de Beek peeled wide, Fernandes exploited the space in behind Brighton’s defence in order to receive from Shaw. Fernandes’ resulting cross was met by Pogba, whose volley was eventually turned in by Greenwood.

The difference that Fernandes’ runs made was significant, and highlighted the importance of balance in the final third when attacking teams who defend team. It is vital to provide a balance between players who move towards and away from the ball to receive in the final third because otherwise, it can become too predicable for the opponent. They can either step up to defend players who drop deep to receive, or defend deeper to prevent runs in behind.

Ultimately, it was a lackluster performance from Manchester United for large parts of the match, however, moments of quality proved critical in the final third. The result is the most important thing in Premier League football, and Greenwood’s late winner to complete tonight’s turnaround has put United in a commanding position to qualify for UEFA Champions League next season.

Up next, United travel to Spain to play the first leg of their Europa League Quarter-Final tie against Granada, before a trip to previous manager Jose Mourinho‘s Tottenham Hotspur next Sunday. On the other hand, Brighton have an 8 day wait before their next encounter, where they entertain Everton on Monday Night Football.

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