Manchester United could first curse and then thank their academy. Their youth system has supplied at least one player for every first-team squad since 1937, but when Danny Welbeck put Brighton on course for a maiden win at Old Trafford, their capacity to produce footballers for other clubs threatened to harm them.
Instead, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, two others who followed his path into the United team and then the England squad, struck in a comeback victory. United could reflect with satisfaction on a weekend when they pulled further away from Leicester and Chelsea, their rivals for second spot while Brighton had an addition to the litany of games where they got plaudits but not points and those where a winning position did not bring victory. Their excellence was not shown in the eventual scoreline. Nor, indeed, was United’s poor first half.
While United welcomed back Rashford and Greenwood after each withdrew from England squads and Edinson Cavani started for the first time in a month, their attacking resources were nevertheless depleted. “Anthony Martial has sprained his knee with France,” Ole Gunnar Solskjær said. “It looks like he will be out for a few weeks.” It has the potential to curtail a frustrating campaign for the Frenchman; their 2019-20 players’ player of the year has scored just seven times.
Greenwood is another who has proved less prolific this season but he scored at Leicester two weeks ago in the FA Cup and almost added another goal. He latched on to Lewis Dunk’s header to drill a half-volley against the near post.
It was a rare game United started without either Nemanja Matic or Scott McTominay, with Paul Pogba’s presence in the centre of midfield signalling a more attacking intent. Pogba shot wide after being picked out by Bruno Fernandes but it was a rare chance for United before the break as they made an incoherent start. Harry Maguire and Fernandes were guilty of overhit passes, Cavani was rarely involved and Brighton were considerably better.
It made Solskjær’s goalkeeping choice more important. Dean Henderson was preferred to David de Gea, giving the Englishman a seventh consecutive start and the Spaniard a sign the pecking order has shifted. Solskjær claimed he had “two No 1s”; the first among equals was beaten inside 13 minutes, even if he was blameless. A brilliant save only preserved parity for a second or two.
When Neal Maupay crossed from the right, Danny Welbeck rose highest to connect emphatically with a header. Henderson reacted adeptly to block it, but it fell for Welbeck to head in at the second attempt. It was a minor slice of history for him, the first former United player to score three Premier League goals against them after leaving Old Trafford, and a lead for Brighton.
Often enterprising, Graham Potter’s side had an early reward for their intrepid approach. It was almost doubled; this time Henderson’s fine reflexes did save United. Pascal Gross delivered a free-kick and Dunk, who accidentally scored for United in their September win, nearly netted at the right end. Henderson did well to tip his header over the bar. The goalkeeper acquitted himself less well when he spilled Gross’s corner, though Maguire managed to clear. Brighton’s combination of a set-piece threat and technical, mobile players meant they could trouble their hosts in different ways. Adam Lallana’s deft touch and Maupay’s eager movement would have yielded a glorious chance but for a fine last-ditch challenge by Maguire.
Jakub Moder could have doubled the visitors’ lead; once again, it stemmed from a corner and set-piece problems have been a theme of United’s season. With the hyperactive Yves Bissouma acting as a high-class destroyer in midfield, they had not spent much time in Brighton territory. Like some of his teammates, Rashford had been muted.
Yet when he sprang to life, he brought United back into the game. First he unleashed a swerving shot that Robert Sánchez held at the second attempt. Buoyed, Rashford darted into the box to win a corner and Fernandes, too, started to impose himself.
Not for the first time this season, United had struggled to move the ball quickly enough. The Portuguese brought speed of foot and pass, first running on to Pogba’s incisive ball, with Sánchez dashing from his line to block, and then picking out the unmarked Rashford. He angled a shot beyond Sánchez to end a six-game goal drought.
Welbeck threatened to respond by restoring Brighton’s advantage. He raced into the box, intent on meeting Maupay’s pass. He seemed tugged back by Maguire, but neither referee Mike Dean nor VAR deemed it a penalty. Rashford was removed, highlighting concerns about his fitness, but Fred had a shot deflected over the bar, Fernandes drilled an effort that Sanchez spilled and Greenwood skewed the rebound over the grounded goalkeeper and his unguarded goal. A suddenly busy Sanchez, whose previous experience in Greater Manchester came largely for Rochdale, had to hold another shot from Fernandes.
But the weight of pressure told. Pogba met Fernandes’s cross with a miscued volley but Greenwood dived to head in, despite the despairing efforts of Sánchez and Ben White, who was on the line.