For Manchester United fans at Old Trafford on Sunday, it felt a little like rewatching a film they’ve seen 100 times before. Except - spoiler alert - this one doesn’t have a happy ending.
This, after a pre-season which was largely positive for Erik ten Hag’s side, was not expected.
In their warm-up games, United played with freedom, fluidity and variety, while there was evidently more pressing off the ball and players appeared to be well versed when it came to carrying out their individual roles.
Admittedly, the performance in the final three friendly games weren’t at the same standard, but the timid display against Brighton was by far and away the worst so far from Ten Hag’s seven games in charge.
It led to a boos at half-time and full-time from supporters, while Ten Hag faced questions about mentality and fight that the United hierarchy had hoped would be consigned to the 2021/22 edition of the Red Devils.
But what exactly went wrong for Ten Hag’s men, and where were United left wanting on Sunday? We’ve picked out five deficiencies the Red Devils displayed against Brighton that were hallmarks of the team last season.
1. McFred axis
Had the Frenkie de Jong deal been wrapped up then perhaps Fred and Scott McTominay would not have been required to play in midfield. But the Dutchman is still very much a Barcelona player, meaning the pair started again on Sunday. It was a slightly different set-up from last season, with Fred playing deeper and McTominay pushing higher up, but United were still porous through the centre, as evidenced by both goals as Brighton squirmed through the midfield and into the attacking areas. Fred and McTominay were also the first two players hauled off by Ten Hag, with United looking more assured in possession when Christian Eriksen dropped into midfield.
2. Panic stations
United actually started the game on top in the opening 15 minutes, and by half an hour it had been a relatively even contest. But Brighton nicked the first goal on 30 minutes, and from there United’s heads dropped. Ten Hag even mentioned after the match that there’s a real lack of self-belief in the squad at present, much like last season. An inability to recover from setbacks or deal with any sort of pressure are huge issues for the team, one that must be resolved soon.
3. De Gea’s dodgy distribution
There’s no denying David de Gea is a great shot stopper, but his ability to pass out from defence remains a real problem for United. The goalkeeper kicked the ball straight out of play more than once, while his distribution in general was laboured. This irked the home supporters at the ground, who responded with groans and cries of frustration when De Gea had the ball at his feet for more than a few seconds.
4. Build-up play
Excluding the first 15 minutes, United demonstrated no rhythm or passing sequences against the Seagulls. Too often United players were forced to turn and pass backwards, with Brighton flooding the middle and cutting out passing lanes. But the lack of movement from United players was also a huge issue, making it difficult for the team to sustain attacks or create passing angles. That United scored from an own-goal off a set-piece is telling, while Eriksen was the only player capable of producing incisive forward passes.