MANCHESTER: New manager, same old problems for Manchester United.
United slumped to a 2-1 loss against Brighton at Old Trafford on Sunday in Erik ten Hag’s first Premier League game in charge, dispelling any notion that the Dutch coach could provide an instant fix to the many issues that plagued the team last season.
United looked vulnerable in defense — with Pascal Gross scoring twice in the first half to put Brighton in control — and toothless in attack until Cristiano Ronaldo came on early in the second half.
“Definitely a setback, a real disappointment,” Ten Hag said. "I knew from the start it will not be easy. And it’s a process, it takes time. But you don’t have time, we have to win games. We should have done better.”
And the questions about Ronaldo's future at the club remain.
Ten Hag decided to leave Ronaldo out of his starting lineup after the Portugal star only played 45 minutes in preseason amid reports he wants to leave for a Champions League club.
But it’s clear why Ten Hag wants to keep the 37-year-old forward as United looked much more dangerous with him on the field, although the hosts needed a goalkeeping error to pull a goal back.
Robert Sanchez failed to punch away a corner and then got in the way of Alexis Mac Allister, who tried to clear the ball only to send it into his own net in the 68th.
United continued to push forward but never came close to an equalizer as Brighton held on for a first win at Old Trafford in the club's history.
“It was obviously disappointing and the worst possible start at halftime to be 2-0 down at Old Trafford,” United defender Harry Maguire said. “Not good enough. We huffed and puffed and we got one back and we had chances to equalize, but it’s a bad start for us.”
While United improved in the second half, the first 45 minutes showed just how big a task Ten Hag is facing to turn around a club that finished sixth in the Premier League last season.
While the hosts dominated possession, the only good chance they created came in the sixth minute when a cross was deflected into the path of Bruno Fernandes, who sent his shot well high of the bar.
Brighton took the lead in the 30th when Danny Welbeck made a run into the area to collect a pass from Leandro Trossard near the byline and then squared the ball across goal for Gross to tap into an empty net.
The second goal came after a quick counterattack, with Gross on hand to tap in the rebound after Solly March cut inside and saw his shot parried by David de Gea.
“I thought we had an idea of how to attack and when we could we tried to press and put them under pressure," Brighton manager Graham Potter said. “We were positive, brave and the boys gave everything. Our performance in the first half was really strong."
Ronaldo instantly gave United a jolt when he came on in the 52nd and set up Marcus Rashford for a one-on-one against Sanchez in the 60th but the goalkeeper blocked the forward’s shot. The offside flag was up against Ronaldo, but replays hinted he had stayed onside.
That was the closest Ronaldo came to making an impact, though, and Ten Hag said the five-time Ballon d'Or winner remains short of match fitness after missing most of the team's preseason preparations.
“He has to do more to get fit. This game will help him,” Ten Hag said. "He will be better next week.”
Ten Hag, and United, better hope so.
United’s players were booed off at halftime and at the final whistle, with Ten Hag looking grim-faced as he walked off the field.