In making six changes for Manchester United’s trip to Brighton on Friday, Jose Mourinho was throwing down the gauntlet to a number of players to prove themselves. All they did in return was throw it right back in his face as they sleep-walked their way to a chastening 1-0 defeat.
A lineup full of players desperate to prove their worth at a time when Mourinho has all-but figured out his favoured first XI should have been able to put together a far more compelling performance than this one. The Portuguese spent most of his night scowling on the touchline, and he had every right to expect more than his side gave him as they meekly stepped aside.
Among those he promoted were Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, whose lack of involvement has become the talk of the terraces in recent months since Alexis Sanchez arrived at Old Trafford and pushed them to the periphery. But both looked lost, and the manager predictably pointed out afterwards that there is a reason for their reduced game time.
"The players that replaced others, they didn’t perform," he told Sky Sports. "When individuals don’t perform to a good level, it’s difficult for the team to perform at a good level. Maybe you can see why some play more than others now.
"'Why always Lukaku, why always Lukaku, why always Lukaku?' You have the answer. We’re not as good individually as people think we are."
They looked like strangers for too long, and, while the heavy rotation can explain that in part, this is a group of players most of whom have worked under Mourinho for two whole seasons now. They train together almost every single day. And yet they played for too much of Friday night like people making each other’s acquaintance for the very first time.
Even the casual observer knows the general characteristics of these Manchester United players, but their team-mates seem not to have a clue judging by what they served up at the Amex.
For the most part United had absolutely nothing to offer. They were slow and ponderous, taking far too many touches on the ball and giving team-mates little in the way of passing options. They watched on as Brighton set the tempo in attack and plugged spaces easily in defence.
United had only a single touch in the Albion box in the first 45 minutes, and that was a poor one. Rashford drew the ire of Mourinho when deciding not to square easily for Martial after having pounced on a defensive error, and he was eventually eased off the ball. It summed up the entire half.
Marouane Fellaini was collecting the ball far too deep, Paul Pogba’s passing was way off range, Martial couldn’t get himself into any rhythm and Juan Mata was completely anonymous. The one clear positive was the performance of David de Gea as he made a trio of excellent stops, most spectacularly when tipping over Glenn Murray looping drive from range.
If there was one surprise after the break it was that Mourinho had decided against making three changes at half-time, let alone one.
Coincidentally, Brighton’s goal came at a time when United had delivered a stronger, more probing opening to the second half. Jose Izquierdo turned Matteo Darmian inside out before pulling back a cross and Pascal Gross showed the greater desire to beat multiple United defenders to the ball, and despite Marcos Rojo’s best efforts on the line the German’s header put the home side ahead.
It was no more than Brighton deserved, but probably not ample punishment for United given their showing. Mourinho made changes soon thereafter to shake his side from their slumber, hauling off Fellaini and Darmian, but they never truly looked likely to get anything from the game.
Brighton’s win keeps them in the Premier League for a second season, while it also means that United have been beaten away from home by all three promoted teams for the first time following losses to Huddersfield and Newcastle earlier in the campaign. That, beyond any other statistic, sums up United’s inconsistency in 2017-18.
United might well still finish second. Wins against West Ham and Watford could yet follow, along with an FA Cup final victory over Chelsea. But quite how a team jam-packed with players with something to prove can turn in such a limp performance defies belief.