Premier League - Football: Where Man Utd must improve after Brighton defeat
Pretty much everything that could’ve gone wrong for Manchester United on Sunday, went wrong.
From Bruno Fernandes’s early missed sitter, United were 2-0 down at half-time, with seemingly no way of coming back.
Here are four key points Erik ten Hag will need to address to get his side competing for the top four.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: while Scott McTominay and Fred could make fine squad players for Manchester United, they’re not players who should be pushing 30 league starts a year.
We saw McTominay take a more advanced role at times than we’ve been used to, with Paul Scholes calling it criminal that the Scotland international would run forward with the ball when he had Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho ahead of him, but it’s unlikely McTominay did this off his own back.
Erik ten Hag presumably told McTominay that would be his role – one surely better suited to a Frenkie de Jong, who would make a world of difference in the United midfield.
Adrien Rabiot is the latest name touted to Old Trafford, but whether it's him, De Jong, neither or both, United need reinforcements.
Holes in the defence
The signing of Lisandro Martinez left many wondering whether it meant that Ten Hag would field a back three, or that Martinez would play in midfield, or whether he or his fellow big-money defender Raphael Varane would occupy the bench.
We may not have the long-term answer to that, but the World Cup and four-time Champions League winner Varane – still only 29 – won’t settle for a being a back-up centre-half all season, starting on the bench against Brighton, with Martinez not getting off to the best start.
Harry Maguire seems the only certainty in the back-line at the moment, with Diogo Dalot and Luke Shaw occupying the full-back spots on Sunday, and the United skipper himself said it would take time to gel with his new defensive partner.
While Maguire was in for a whole heap of criticism last season, much of it unfair, he was caught ball-watching as Leandro Trossard fed in Danny Welbeck, and was too slow to get back afterwards.
United need a striker
Frankly, United haven’t really replaced Romelu Lukaku since he was sold in 2019.
Since being sold, the Red Devils have brought in Odion Ighalo, Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo. Anthony Martial had a spell where he looked like he might be able to lead the line, but a dismal 2020/21 season saw him shipped out on loan halfway through the following season.
Meanwhile, their rivals have signed the likes of Erling Haaland, Gabriel Jesus, Lukaku and Darwin Nunez, while another have had a Harry Kane in their ranks.
We don’t know whether Ronaldo will remain at the club beyond the transfer window, but it shouldn’t affect United’s plans; despite his 18 league goals last season, there’s a very strong case to be made that the side were worse with him in it, and Ten Hag simply cannot rely upon Bruno Fernandes or Christian Eriksen to play as a false 9.
De Gea’s distribution lacking
The shot-stopping abilities of David de Gea have never been in question. He’s routinely made Save of the Season contenders, and in each of the last five campaigns, has saved more shots than would be expected.
But his distribution very much has been in question, particularly in recent years. If Ten Hag wants his side to be possession-orientated, that needs to start at the back, and it requires significant improvement from De Gea.
His shortfalls were highlighted in the first half when pushed to clear the ball with his left foot, and instead, barely cleared his own 18-yard box when putting the ball into touch with his right, immediately putting United back under pressure.
He was also found wanting for the first goal, bizarrely opting to use his feet to try stop Danny Welbeck’s cutback, which was no more than three yards from his goal-line. His ability to command his area has never been a strong point, but to not even command your six-yard box cannot be allowed as a Manchester United goalkeeper.
All in all, it was a chastening afternoon for Ten Hag's men, with progress needed quickly ahead of Saturday's clash with Brentford.