It took until the 82nd minute, but eventually Manchester United's talent won out over Graham Potter's stylized, well-coached Brighton system, and the Red Devils prevailed, 2-1. Brighton managed an early goal thanks to a cross from Neal Maupay finding Danny Welbeck's head. And then Brighton managed to muddy up the game for an hour, betting, correctly for a while, that United couldn't break down their organized defense.
For most of the first half they didn't even bend, let alone break, but shortly after the hour mark Bruno Fernandes created space for Marcus Rashford and then less than 10 minutes from time he again orchestrated an attack, one which ended in a Mason Greenwood header. Here are three major takeaways from United getting it done the hard way.
United win the possession battle with dull repetition
It would not usually be remarkable for a home team in the Premier League's top two to have more of the ball than their 16th-place visitors. But Brighton are not a normal 16th-place side. Coming into the match they averaged 51.1% of the ball, the ninth most in the league. United, as one of the top couple of Premier League sides, unsurprisingly averaged 55.8%. It was an open question to what degree Brighton would be willing to play their role as a reactive side, to sit back cede the ball and allow United to hold it.
The surprise wasn't necessarily that United did, in fact control the ball, ending the match with 57.5% possession, but rather that Brighton took so well to a counterattacking role. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer opted to start Paul Pogba in central midfield, and the decision worked to the degree that it was intended to allow the mercurial French midfielder to control the match. But, deploying Pogba there instead of higher up the pitch where he's often featured this season, meant that United lacked much creativity or punch in the final third. They kept the ball but as has frequently been the case this season struggled to turn possession into much attack. A problem which was made worse when Danny Welbeck headed home for Brighton in the 13th minute.
Then again, all the problems of stale and boring possession can melt away when you have an attacker like Bruno Fernandes.
Fernandes rescues United in the final third
For an hour United's possession afforded them absolutely nothing. Despite trailing they only managed six shots to Brighton's five. If that hour represented the worst of United's season, what followed represented the best. First it was Fernandes popping up in the most classic of 10 areas, receiving the ball centrally at the top of the opposition penalty area and quickly sliding a perfectly weighted pass to assist Marcus Rashford's perfectly executed run and hip-opening far post finish.
But it was the movement of Fernandes ahead of United's match winner that truly demonstrates how special he is. It won't show up on the score sheet but it was his in to out run into Brighton's right side channel which presented Luke Shaw with the angle to pry open Brighton's defense, and then upon receiving Shaw's pass his vision to cross the ball back over Brighton's defense for the late-arriving Pogba to play back across the face of goal to assist young Mason Greenwood. A lot of things had to go right to create that point blank chance for United, but none of them happen without Fernandes creating space, first for himself, and then for Pogba to create the defining moment.
Brighton's mysterious losing ways continue
It is neither shocking nor surprising that Brighton lost to United, especially so when you consider both the possession numbers and that United had the better of the shot count 15-5. But, the expected goal battle finished even at 1.46 each. Now, again, there is nothing abnormal about one team scoring two goals and another scoring one on the back of a goal and a half of xG. But, what is abnormal is just how often this has happened to Brighton.
There are a lot of unusual things about Brighton. They possess the ball a lot. They use that possession to create a lot for themselves (1.45 xG per match), while ably denying their opponents and conceding only 0.96 xG per match. That's the third (yes you read that right, third) stingiest total in the league. And yet that broadly hasn't mattered this season as Potter's side has continued to flirt with the relegation zone. As the season winds toward its conclusion, it's now too late for Brighton to live up to this year's numbers, but should they avoid relegation as it appears likely, but not definite, they will, then one of the biggest questions heading into next season will revolve around what the fluke was this year. Did Brighton get horrible unlucky or did their odd style of play trick the numbers into seeing a side that was materially better than what performed on the field?