Horror start for Ten Hag as Gross fires Brighton to win at Manchester United


This was the worst possible start for Manchester United under Erik ten Hag. All the optimism of pre‑season and a new manager curdled as Old Trafford proved a theatre of the Dutchman’s worst nightmares. Employed on a ticket of “proactive” (his word) pressing football, he served up the precise opposite until a rally that drew a farcical consolation.

Brighton gave the Dutchman an uncompromising welcome to the Premier League. Leandro Trossard, Danny Welbeck and Pascal Gross were their stars in an impressive visit from Graham Potter’s men. At any moment it seemed as if they would score and Ten Hag and his players will now have to rouse themselves for the trip to Brentford next weekend before hosting Liverpool in their next home fixture.

In describing the task before him afterwards as a “hell of a job” Ten Hag succinctly summed up a decline that began nine years ago when Sir Alex Ferguson departed.

Yet his side might have scored as early as the sixth minute. Jadon Sancho moved inside and poked the ball to Scott McTominay, who was outmuscled all afternoon on the right wing. He found Bruno Fernandes but the Portuguese blazed over from a few yards out.

Before this, 15 seconds in, Diogo Dalot had dithered, allowing Trossard to let fly. He hit the side netting but moments after the miss by Fernandes the Brighton No 11 was gifted the ball in a similar area and once more United escaped.

Before this game protests from United fans had caused the club shop to be closed as a crowd thronged in front of the megastore: this will have been noted by Avram Glazer, the co‑owner making a rare visit and later watching on from the directors’ box. For his inaugural Premier League XI Ten Hag solved the problem of Anthony Martial’s enforced absence with a hamstring injury by selecting Christian Eriksen as a false 9 but the ploy did not work.

Considering Ten Hag has drilled his charges to close down from day one, the lax marking will have infuriated him: one Brighton attack had Trossard dallying in a crowded area before chipping the ball towards Moisés Caicedo with Lisandro Martínez, like Eriksen making his Premier League debut for United, half asleep. When, later, Alexis Mac Allister unleashed a shot at goal Eriksen did press but this opening occurred because Trossard was again allowed room to cross.

He had a pivotal part in Brighton’s opener that, too, derived from United’s leakiness. A McTominay surge was the first error as he ran into a Brighton sandwich. From here the ball was threaded by Trossard to the effervescent Welbeck and, when he tapped over a cross, Gross, unmarked, rolled the ball in. Cut to Ten Hag shaking his head and Cristiano Ronaldo, on the bench, lifting his arms in either disdain or encouragement.

Next, though, was more despair for those in red. From along Brighton’s left Trossard fed Caicedo. He shrugged off a passive Eriksen and the ball was swept upfield in a sequence featuring Gross, Adam Lallana and Solly March. The latter shot at goal, David de Gea palmed out and Gross, following in, doubled his tally and the lead, Fred the latest United bystander.

As the interval approached, Ten Hag surely had curt words prepared but first he still had to watch McTominay get in another muddle and Martínez lose Welbeck, whose header should have made it 3-0.

The name missing from the starting lineup was Ronaldo’s. The manager said that playing only 45 minutes of last Sunday’s friendly with Rayo Vallecano plus “10 days” of training was behind his decision to name the wantaway forward as a substitute.

Seven minutes into the second half, though, Ten Hag did turn to the 37-year-old, Fred making way, as Ronaldo went to his favoured No 9 berth and Eriksen moved back to operate as a deep-lying string-puller. Martínez was having a minor shocker and this would have become a major one but for Paul Tierney’s leniency when the centre-back shoved Welbeck over in the area. It appeared a penalty but Martínez and United escaped as the referee ruled no foul had been committed.

Marcus Rashford, too, was poor in an unwanted echo of last season. One regulation control pushed the ball out and he missed two golden chances from close range. The first had Ronaldo flagged – wrongly – for offside so VAR would have allowed it.

There was a positive moment when United finally struck. A scramble at a corner had the ball hitting Dalot – possibly on the arm – with Harry Maguire involved, too, and maybe offside before it went in off Mac Allister: VAR ruled this fair and United had a lifeline. As the home crowd roared their men on, a curving Dalot shot was fumbled by Brighton’s keeper, Robert Sánchez as, now, Brighton were hanging on.

When Donny van de Beek replaced McTominay, he passed a note, presumably from Ten Hag, to Maguire. Whatever it said did not work as Brighton, at the final whistle, were complete value for the victory. For United this may be yet another long season.