Manchester United 2 Brighton 0
After 588 minutes of football and 47 days, the great drought is over. Cristiano Ronaldo, the man who has scored more than anyone else in the history of football, scored a goal, his first of 2022 and his first as a 37-year-old. In the process, a serial Champions League winner put Manchester United in the position to return them to the European elite, he and Bruno Fernandes sending them back up to fourth. Ronaldo had not gone seven games without a goal since 2009 and Brighton have never won at Old Trafford. The opening exchanges suggested history could be made but Albion ended up ruing a disastrous three-minute spell when Ronaldo struck and Lewis Dunk was sent off.
Ralf Rangnick asked Sascha Lense, his sports psychologist, to address United’s players about their problem of losing first half leads. His words may not have had the desired effect as they limped in with parity at the break after lacking the initial incision they have shown of late. Their meaningful efforts before the interval amounted to a Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick that hit the wall and a lone good chance. Even that was courtesy of a defensive mistake as Jadon Sancho could have opened the scoring for the third consecutive match at Old Trafford.
Ronaldo has a habit of lingering offside and what looked like laziness brought a reward when Adam Webster misjudged a punt forward, releasing the striker. He played the ball into the path of the advancing Sancho with a cute backheel, but Robert Sánchez proved equal to the winger’s shot. Yet while Sancho was United’s sprightliest attacker at the start, most of those to make a positive early impression were in blue and white.
It was a sign of the ambition in Brighton’s approach that they had 59 per cent of possession in the first period, much of it in United’s half. With a quarter of the game gone, Rangnick switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation in an attempt to gain control but Graham Potter shaped the game by configuring his side with a midfield diamond. If the intention was to outnumber United in the centre of the pitch, it also provided a goal threat. He has a squad brimming with creativity. He opted for Jakub Moder at No 10 and both his choice of system and individual almost produced a dividend.
After an error from the recalled Fred – a penny for the dropped Paul Pogba’s thoughts as he watched his replacement play an inexplicably poor pass – Pascal Gross released the overlapping Moder. His shot was blocked by David de Gea. Moder continued to demonstrate the ability to elude the United defence. De Gea denied him for a second time, with a flying save from a forceful header after Joel Veltman crossed. When Moder picked out Yves Bissouma, who had surged forward from the base of the diamond, he blazed over. A mitigating factor for United was the late withdrawal of Raphaël Varane, who was named in the side but reported ill, and without him they struggled to track Brighton’s runners.
When United led, it was partly due to their veteran scorer and partly Rangnick’s brand of football. The coach could be forgiven for savouring the manner of Scott McTominay’s assist as he picked the pocket of the previously excellent Bissouma to set up Ronaldo. His barren spell was ended in trademark fashion, with a shot with little backlift that nevertheless nestled in the corner of the net.
United’s harrying in the final third produced a second dividend a minute later as Anthony Elanga robbed Dunk. The Brighton captain hauled the teenager down and while referee Peter Bankes settled for a yellow card, United’s protests were so vociferous that Bruno Fernandes was also booked. The Var Jarred Gillet sent Bankes to the pitchside monitor to review the incident and the card was upgraded to a red.
Ronaldo almost scored a second, with Sánchez producing an acrobatic save from his header, as United assumed the initiative.
They never relinquished it. Sánchez had to make a fine stop from Fernandes, making amends for his own mistake in passing straight to Ronaldo. If his unselfishness in passing to his compatriot came because he had already scored, he may have regretted it when Fernandes proved less predatory. When Moder struck the bar with a terrific shot, that miss threatened to be costly. Instead, Fernandes streaked clear in the 96th minute to seal victory.