Poor pressing, pinned back: Breaking down Manchester United’s miserable performance against Brighton

As referee Andrew Madley blew for full time, the dread set in.

Another public indignity had been suffered and another collective autopsy would begin.

Yet there was something off about Manchester United’s 4-0 defeat to Brighton on Saturday. As United fans in the away sections of the Amex Stadium sang anti-Glazer songs and told the club’s players they were not fit to wear the shirt, there was a coldness to the rage. A sense that this had happened before.

It is OK to make new mistakes on a journey of growth. It is clumsy to repeat the same ones. What’s more, it is deeply frustrating to those around you to watch the same set of consequences repeat themselves despite repeated warnings. Against Brighton, United were humiliated, humbled and taken apart in a way not seen since… previous humiliations this season against Liverpool, Manchester City and, ahem, Watford.

How does one explain a mortifying game of football when the same embarrassing events keep re-occurring?

To paraphrase a cartoon horse (“I’ve had a lot of what I thought were rock bottoms, only to discover another, rockier bottom underneath” from Bojack Horseman), every time the United class of 2021-22 believe they have reached rock bottom , they strive to find another further down.

They have 58 points with only one league game remaining. No matter the result away to Crystal Palace in that fixture on May 22, this will be the club’s worst-ever season in the 30 years of the Premier League. United cannot finish higher than their current position of sixth, as they are four points behind fifth-placed Tottenham; the only jeopardy that remains is whether their former manager David Moyes’ West Ham United can leapfrog them with their game in hand and far superior goal difference, pushing Ralf Rangnick’s side down to seventh.

There is no singular way to describe United’s collapse at the Amex. So here is The Athletic attempting several.


Looking at tactical shortcomings

United faced Brighton with the same starting XI that had triumphed over Brentford at Old Trafford on Monday and, for much of the opening exchanges at the Amex, it appeared Rangnick had tasked his players to repeat the same game plan too, with Juan Mata continuing his short Indian summer as United’s No 10, while Bruno Fernandes played on the left. The two playmakers were in constant conversation with each other during pauses in play, Mata attempting to offer passing variety and a slower pace of attack to Fernandes’ more high-octane efforts.

But what was successful against Brentford struggled against Brighton. With the home side lining up in a 3-4-2-1, wing-backs Solly March and Leandro Trossard got the better of the declining Mata, who turned 34 last week, and the raw Anthony Elanga, who left his teens last week , out wide to expose United’s full-backs, before either crossing the ball into the penalty areas or working inside for passing moves.

Brighton’s left centre-back Marc Cucurella would also frequently get forward, leaving Diogo Dalot overwhelmed in two-v-one duels. In central areas, Yves Bissouma and Moises Caicedo formed a solid base and Brighton defended with a collective counter-pressing effort, harrying Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay whenever United did gain possession.

At half-time, Brighton were only one goal up, thanks to a long-range Caicedo effort in the 15th minute, but look at their average position map from the first 45 minutes (No 3 is Cucurella; again, he was Brighton’s left center -back)…

…compared to that of Rangnick’s side.

United had been comprehensively outmuscled, outrun and out-thought throughout that first half, unable to get the ball out of their own territory in central areas, or progress the ball with any purpose further wide. Long balls to Cristiano Ronaldo (much to Rangnick’s chagrin on the sideline), saw him dropping deep to flick the ball on but they were not as successful as they’d been against Brentford.

The second half saw Rangnick replaces Matic and Elanga with Fred and Edinson Cavani at the break and move to a 4-2-2-2 shape.

That requires a different style of explanation.

Statistical analysis

United’s collapse happened over an 11-minute period, starting with Cucurella’s goal in the 49th minute and ending with a Trossard finish in the 60th.

Over 11 minutes, United went from vaguely having a chance to get a result to being on the receiving end of a 4-0 humiliation.

Take a look at the below timeline of Brighton’s shots in the game – they were uneconomical in their chance creation until… they very much were not.

The three second-half goals came about from a team comfortable in possession playing against one unsure of themselves when without it.

Brighton created a numerical superiority on the right before a diagonal pass to the left found Trossard, who assisted Cucurella for the second goal. Their third came from a long pass by goalkeeper Robert Sanchez which found the rampant Cucurella down the left; he linked up again with Trossard, who then laid in Pascal Gross to score. The final insult came three minutes later, on the hour, when a sensible passing move saw the ball move from Brighton’s left to their right, before Danny Welbeck found space behind Raphael Varane for an attempt on goal that got bundled in by Trossard.

Eleven minutes brought three Brighton goals through sensible, rather than spectacular football.

“I remember watching the game against Watford away, 4-1 (the November defeat that cost predecessor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his job), who are now relegated, and this looked very similar to what happened today,” offered Rangnick after the game.

“For me, the problem is how to defend as a team, and in this league, if you play against good teams — and Brighton is a good team — if you do not defend properly, if you just let them play and give them all the space and time in the world, this is the result.”

Brighton produced their flurry of goals by exploiting a long-standing weakness of Rangnick’s United. The interim manager has spent his tenure attempting to get the side to defend in a compact 4-4-2 shape, but they leave too much space between their midfield and defensive lines so opposition teams can easily play through.

United registered a Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA) figure of 14.9 on Saturday, suggesting there was no intensity to their off-the-ball defensive efforts, and they largely allowed Brighton to pass without much-tackling trouble or pressure.

Rangnick was once dubbed “The Godfather of gegenpressing”, but United are 15th in the 20-team Premier League for PPDA, allowing their opponents to play 14.4 passes on average before making an intervention.

In the 24th minute, referee Madley twice allowed advantage to be played so Brighton could continue a counter-attack that was nearly scuppered by a deliberate McTominay pullback and an Elanga tackle. United are at a point where they even struggle to make cynical, preventative fouls.

In February, Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl said, “It is not a big secret that when they (United) lose the ball, the reverse gears are not the best from everybody”. Moments before Brighton’s third goal went in, Rangnick could be seen on the touchline gesturing to United players to push further up the pitch, only for his team to remain fairly static as Sanchez’s long pass to Cucurella arced over their heads.

Brighton’s fourth stemmed first from Victor Lindelof rushing out of defense in an attempt to tackle Alexis Mac Allister…

…but the Brighton midfielder hits a first-time pass wide, leaving Lindelof out of position and with space in behind. To his credit, the Swede does his best to retreat quickly but, by the time Gross gets on the ball, Welbeck and Trossard have worked their way into profitable central areas.

Varane – who had multiple shaky moments on Saturday – then misses his attempt to intercept Gross’ pass, and Welbeck is through on goal.

Rangnick denied there was any disconnect between his instructions and the team’s actionsbut this vintage of United have been unable to play with any sustained intensity or structure for several weeks.

This defeat to Brighton was bad. So bad we will take a brief interlude to do this.

Just listing a bunch of numbers

  • Manchester United have now lost five consecutive away games, scoring twice in those matches while conceding 16 times.
  • United did not register a shot on target until the 55th minute on Saturday, when a Mata effort was saved comfortably by Sanchez.
  • They have now conceded four goals in five league games this season, as many times as bottom-of-the-table Norwich City.
  • United have now conceded 56 league goals — their highest total since 1978-79, when the season had four more games.
  • This season will see United’s lowest final points total since 1990-91, when they finished sixth goal won the old European Cup Winners’ Cup)
  • Five players who started in the humiliating 4-0 defeat to Everton in April 2019, also started against Brighton on Saturday. The club are facing another rebuild this summer, because they properly failed to complete their last one.

Rangnick’s post-match press conference

“To start with, it’s important that we apologise to our supporters who came all the way from Manchester to Brighton,” Rangnick said.

The interim manager has failed at healing a fractured dressing room (the typical modus operandi of a manager on a fixed-term contract) and at properly implementing a coherent and consistent playing style (the other great hope for the German), but his candidness in press conferences and interviews have shone a spotlight on the scale of the rebuild that awaits United.

It is not a great consolation – for all of the apologies that he, along with Saturday’s match-day captain Fernandes can offer in defeats such as these, there are few soothing words left that can have an effect. The best apology is changed behavior and United, to their (limited) credit, appear to be making one that will last most of the summer.

The relative wealth and storied history of the club compared to others in the Premier League have insulated United from catastrophic failures for a number of years, and even now, at their lowest ebb in Premier League history, they will still likely play in one European competition or another next season. But defeats to Brighton and other teams have removed the last of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Buried in all the mess of defeats and bad performances this season, there is something there from which United can rebuild, but they have to be totally serious about the work ahead.

This brings us to our final section, where the opposition manager gets to explain what sort of work United will probably have to do next.

Using Graham Potter’s post-match press conference

“You have to understandthe league we’re in and the competition we’re up against,” Brighton manager Potter said after the game. “Financially, we’re never going to compete with the majority of clubs, but it’s about aligning ourselves to an idea, aligning ourselves to a way of working, way of playing and making sure the resources are used well, which I think we’ ve done well so far.

“You have to be brave, I think, in terms of how you recruit and how you sell players, because that gives you an advantage as well, but we’re taking steps. You need results to convince people that you are on the right path and thankfully we’ve finished off well and we want to finish off our last couple of games because that means you can keep moving forward.”

Brighton are successful in their realm of the Premier League because they do the things Manchester United do not. Their victory over them on Saturday was one of proper coaching and sensible thinking over years of dysfunctional spending and mismanagement.

If United could one day play again with the intensity and purpose Brighton displayed and have a behind-the-scenes set-up similar to that of Potter’s side, they could go a long way to restoring themselves as the sort of organization Manchester United used to be.

For too long, United have traded on their history and the finances that came along with their name, rather than uphold the principles that helped make that name in the first place.

The 2021-22 season has shown such behavior cannot continue any longer.

(Photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

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