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Brighton pile misery on Manchester United as Welbeck sparks away win

“Can we play you every week,” sang the delirious Brighton fans whose team administered a loss that has Manchester United veering close to crisis territory.

This was a third United defeat from five Premier League outings – greeted with jeers by the home support – and the second on the bounce, leaving Erik ten Hag’s side with six points from 15. Lose at Burnley next Saturday and they will be engulfed in a plight that was not in the early season script.

Brighton, rightly, ended the game cock-a-hoop. Danny Welbeck, Pascal Gross and João Pedro the scorers for the visitors who were threatened only sporadically apart from the opening 15 minutes from United.

Two-nil down on the hour, Ten Hag acted, introducing Hannibal Mejbri and Anthony Martial for Casemiro and Rasmus Højlund. The latter move was greeted with boos for the manager – a sign of the times – whose desperation was marked by Mejbri having not featured for two seasons.

On 71 minutes it got worse: one of Roberto De Zerbi’s changes was João Pedro and, as with Brighton’s previous two goals, the striker was left unmarked and able to blaze past André Onana, who should have saved.

This prompted some fans to depart but Mejbri, perhaps disgusted at his colleagues’ capitulation, strode forward and powered a piledriver past Jason Steele. However this was United’s brightest moment on an afternoon that started bathed in optimism.

The hope had been that two torrid weeks would be ended by the sight of Højlund lining up for his home and full debut. Like all fans, United’s support enjoy a particular frisson at the sight of a new centre-forward. Especially one who is 20 years old, fast, strong, tall and is the symbol of a supposed new era in which on-field fortunes will make the recent off-field affairs fade.

Not this afternoon, though Højlund displayed a buccaneering zest shown by one raid that saw him marginally miss bulging the back of Steele’s net from Marcus Rashford’s cross.

This had the Dane pounding a palm into the turf and Brighton were warned. Rashford, operating as the second striker in a novel 4-3-1-2 formation, took inspiration. At this stage, he was a fleet-footed threat that bedevilled a Brighton back four led by the towering Lewis Dunk, who had to cope with Højlund stampeding down on him each time he tried to build an attack.

A win was required to ease the swirl around the club but Welbeck’s opener was the first blow. The former home favourite steered the ball out right to Simon Adingra and moved into an area where the return pass went past the hapless Victor Lindelöf, who was distracted by Adam Lallana. Welbeck rolled the ball into the net, then celebrated before the Stretford End.

Lindelöf shook his head and United had to collectively do the same to break the grip their visitor placed on them. De Zerbi’s players flowed across the pitch, moving the ball through their opponents as if it was a training exercise. United held on and thrust back. A Casemiro diagonal pass hit Rashford who sprinted at the back-pedalling rearguard and let fly: the ball ricocheted off Kaoru Mitoma and on to the right angle of Steele’s goal.

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Close to the break and VAR was the visitors’ friend. Højlund’s neat swivel-and-strike was correctly chalked off due to Rashford’s cross arriving after the ball went out of play on the right byline. Close, sure, but Ten Hag’s talk at the interval had to address how United had faded after a promising start.

Rashford’s darting run, a replica of the one that presaged Højlund’s ruled-out strike, ended again with zero end product as United settled in for a defining half. It soon became tortuous due to another too-simple Brighton goal. Mitoma wandered along the left and found Tariq Lamptey; he recycled the ball to Gross, a shimmy made a mug of Lisandro Martínez and Onana was beaten to his right.

United were missing a swathe of players headed by Jadon Sancho (for disciplinary reasons) and Antony (a leave of absence). Plus those with injuries, including Raphaël Varane and Luke Shaw; yet Brighton did this while deploying their arch-predator, Evan Ferguson, only as a replacement.

The Sancho affair has been the main issue. Ten Hag created this with his openness regarding the forward’s absence from the previous loss at Arsenal. Now has to come a change in what he oversees on the field – and quickly.

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