This is how Ole Gunnar Solskjær intends to restore Manchester United to former glories. The road back to the top of the Premier League is long and it is impossible to say that United will be challenging for the title next season, given the ridiculous levels of Liverpool’s current superiority. But a Bruno Fernandes-inspired performance on the south coast brought that most precious of commodities – hope.
It is what routinely kills supporters and goodness knows there have been false dawns for United in the years since Sir Alex Ferguson was manager. But with Fernandes roaming with menace behind a pacy and dangerous front three – in which the 18-year-old Mason Greenwood was the star turn – and Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic providing the control in the centre of the pitch, it was an evening when United made a statement.
A criticism of Solskjær has been that the team have been overly reliant on balls up the channels for their quick forwards; that they have been too reactive rather than proactive. Now, with Fernandes on board and every other key player fit, United are better equipped to play through opponents.
They can still counter-attack as they did to devastating effect for their third goal, which was superbly finished by Fernandes. But when they needed to unpick Brighton’s two banks of four, to seize the initiative, they did so with authority. Their movement and interplay was extremely easy on the eye, particularly in the first half.
Fernandes had advertised his and United’s threat with a thumping low drive that came back off the post, with Mat Ryan beaten and, shortly afterwards, Greenwood opened the scoring with the 13th goal in all competitions of his breakthrough season.
From a Brighton point of view, Greenwood was given too much space to sprint in on goal, Dale Stephens having been caught on the wrong side of him after a pass from Aaron Wan-Bissaka. What followed was all about Greenwood’s skill and balance. He stepped over the ball twice to unsettle Lewis Dunk before shooting low and hard with his left foot for the near corner. It is fast becoming his trademark move. Ryan was powerless.
Fernandes’s ability to ghost into spaces, together with his penetrative passing and readiness to shoot, has added a new dimension. This was the January signing’s 13th game for United but it feels as though he has been there for a lifetime. Once again, his personality was to the fore and he put United in charge before the half-hour.
Marcus Rashford released the overlapping Luke Shaw – replays showed that the left-back was onside – and his cut-back ran all the way through for Pogba, who turned it inside to Fernandes on the edge of the area. The shot deflected heavily off Alexis Mac Allister to wrong-foot Ryan.
For Brighton, the big game of the week is at Norwich on Saturday and, having taken four points from Arsenal and Leicester – more than even their most positive of supporters might have expected, after no wins previously in 2020 – this had felt like a free hit in their battle to put daylight between themselves and the bottom three.
Graham Potter went for it at half-time, introducing Leandro Trossard for Tariq Lamptey, the right-back who had played at right midfield, and a striker for a midfielder – Neal Maupay for Davy Pröpper. Brighton got on to the front foot for five minutes or so and then were floored on the break.
Matic took one touch from a clearing Harry Maguire header before releasing Greenwood, who raced into a crossing position on the left. His delivery for Fernandes, who had timed his run, was deep and inviting and the question for the Portuguese was whether he had the technique to execute the right-footed volley. The answer was emphatic. It was only United’s third shot on target. Ruthlessness was a big part of the performance.
Brighton were left to play for pride but how they showed it. Trossard went close on two occasions while David de Gea saved smartly from Aaron Connolly and Maupay. United hinted at a fourth through two of their substitutes, Brandon Williams and Scott McTominay and, when it was done, victory meant a 15th game in all competitions without defeat – the best sequence under Solskjær. The clean sheet came to feel a little fortuitous in the face of Brighton’s rally but it was the 10th of the unbeaten run.
Solskjær’s tenure has been blighted by poor away displays, games when United have been one-paced and one-dimensional, unable to find a way through. Remember West Ham, Newcastle, Bournemouth and Watford? This was only their fifth away win of the Premier League season and, with six games to go, 52 points represents a poor return. More of this, though, and the feel-good factor will swell.