Whenever Jose Mourinho has been asked to address the eight-point gap separating Premier League leaders Manchester City from his own Manchester United side he has looked far from pleased at the line of questioning.
But while Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Brighton & Hove Albion at Old Trafford on Saturday means United will maintain a foothold in the title race at the very least this weekend, those of a City persuasion will not be too perturbed by the thought of their own visit to the Theatre of Dreams in two weeks’ time after watching their neighbours stumble past Chris Hughton’s side.
Brighton caused United plenty of problems throughout. Glenn Murray was regularly supported by the pace and guile of Anthony Knockaert and Pascal Gross as the visitors picked holes in United’s rearguard. On another day they might have been a couple of goals ahead by the time Lewis Dunk deflected Ashley Young’s speculator from the edge of the area into the far corner of the net, and they will count themselves unfortunate not to have got something out of the game.
But at the other end there was a comparative lack of cohesion. There wasn’t the flow or sharpness about United’s attack that there was about Brighton’s. To be fair, the Seagulls have been one of the more competent sides outside of the Premier League’s top seven this term, but it still felt like the Reds were making things a bit tougher for themselves than was entirely necessary.
Romelu Lukaku’s all-round game needs to improve drastically, and he has netted only once in 10 games now, while Marcus Rashford’s form in front of goal has also tailed off, resulting in a seven-game run without a goal since netting the consolation effort in the loss at Huddersfield over a month ago.
Against such a backdrop, winning the game was the most important thing. But there needs to be a power shift in this city sooner rather than later if United are to haul in Pep Guardiola’s outfit and that looks no closer following Brighton’s visit than it did pre-game.
While United hit four past Newcastle last week, that performance stands out as the exception rather than the norm of late. This was a return to the kind of lifeless, uncertain displays which were prevalent at Old Trafford last season. With away trips to Watford and Arsenal coming before the league leaders arrive in town, Mourinho’s men simply cannot afford another performance like this one or they will only see the gap at the top grow wider.
Narrow wins when not playing particularly well are often considered the stuff of champion outfits. But United remain a long way off the pace in more ways than one right now, and in a week when Reds legend Eric Cantona claimed he would rather Guardiola were in charge of his former side than Mourinho, the French genius will not have been dissuaded by anything he saw here.