Manchester United optimism quickly snuffed out by return of old failings

Sport

A bright sun, a blue sky, the temperature climbing beyond 20C. The trams packed well over three hours before kick-off, the megastore rammed. The stewards and security men disconcertingly chirpy. The face of the new manager glaring from the scarves stretched out on the stalls on Matt Busby Way. A distinct buzz in the air. Perhaps even, if one really looked for it, a sense of optimism. Then they kicked off.

There have been plenty of dispiriting afternoons for Manchester United in recent years but few quite so dispiriting as this. The feeling was perhaps that Brighton, having sold Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella, would not be quite what they had been last season, the hope for home fans that Erik ten Hag’s hardline approach would have transformed them. But Brighton outplayed United for long periods and might, in truth, have won more comfortably, particularly had Lisandro Martínez been penalised for what seemed an obvious barge in the box on Danny Welbeck. All the familiar late United surge achieved was to reduce the margin of defeat to 2-1. New dawn? Same old United.

Even Avram Glazer, enthused by the prospect of a new start, turned up, sitting in the directors’ box with the fixed stare and vacant smile characteristic of extremely wealthy men pretending to understand the events being played out in front of them. To his left, Sir Alex Ferguson glowered down with the barely repressed frustration that has been his habitual mode for the nine years since he retired.

The injured Anthony Martial had arrived a few minutes before Glazer to general beaming and fist-bumps while a row in front Gareth Southgate wore a quizzical air, watching one of his England leaders, Harry Maguire, operating unusually as the right-sided central defender, bellowing in despair as all structure disappeared. His two England forwards, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, were outshone by the largely forgotten Welbeck, who kept plucking passes out of the sky with a deftness that suggested his boots had been fashioned from Niall Quinn’s chest.

Early in the second half Marcus Rashford allowed a simple pass to roll under his foot and out for a throw-in. It was that sort of day all round. He is a shell of the player he was, hollowed out by a lack of confidence so profound that a late offside flag in one counterattack felt almost cruel because of the opportunity it afforded him to mess up the finish.

All the talk before kick-off had been of Cristiano Ronaldo being left on the bench while Christian Eriksen started as a false 9. Could this be a counterintuitive switch as productive as Ten Hag’s deployment of Dusan Tadic in the role at Ajax? Perhaps it will be but United’s forward line was so little involved it was very difficult to tell. Eriksen’s only real contribution was to be casually swatted aside by the impressive Moisés Caicedo in the buildup to the second goal.

It was that sense of diffidence, of being picked apart almost in slow motion, that was so striking. Ten Hag’s Night of the Long Kitchen Knives, culling the squad’s personal chefs in an effort to improve nutrition and refocus minds on the club, may have made his players fitter but their pressing was no better than it had been in the worst days of last season.

Into which chaos Ronaldo was introduced – to a mix of boos and cheers – eight minutes into the second half. Many of the flaws at the club were exacerbated by his signing last August but in the absence of anything else he remains probably the most likely source of a goal. Which is, of course, part of the problem. Bringing him on felt like an admission by Ten Hag that all else had failed.

When Plan A fails, chuck on the prolific goalscorer who does not really fit and hope for the best. That at least had the advantage of shifting Eriksen much deeper, where he was far more comfortable, but Brighton were still fairly unflustered, even after conceding following Robert Sánchez’s flap at a corner.

There are reports of Marko Arnautovic being signed as short-term cover, hopes still of landing Benjamin Sesko and Frenkie de Jong, but it feels now that this is about more than personnel. In football, form can change very quickly but what was perhaps most hurtful on Sunday was just how familiar this felt. Ten Hag, Ralf Rangnick, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, José Mourinho, Louis van Gaal, David Moyes … changing the pilot matters little when the tanker is heading inexorably in the wrong direction. Mikel Arteta, presumably, will be preparing for Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford next month by having his team train to a soundtrack of grim muttering and resigned derision.

There are no easy solutions. This is not about ketchup or chips, not about pressing or conditioning, not about the coach or the captain, the attack or the defence. It is about a club that has lost its way utterly, about a leadership in a panic, grabbing at solutions without any real grasp of how they may be applied. Where do United go? That is very hard to say but ideally they would not be starting with a first ever home defeat by Brighton.