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 United’s capacity to also produce footballers for other clubs threatened to harm them when Danny Welbeck put Brighton on course for a maiden win at Old Trafford. Instead, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, two others who followed Welbeck’s path into the United forward line and then the England squad, struck in a rescue job after a wretched first half.
Comebacks represent another United tradition – “We have done that a few times this season, we are getting used to it,” said Ole Gunnar Solskjær – while Brighton have acquired an unfortunate habit of losing games from winning positions. This was an addition to the litany of fixtures where they got plaudits but not points. Their excellence was not shown in the eventual scoreline.
But if United could reflect with some satisfaction on a weekend when they pulled further away from Leicester and Chelsea, their rivals for second, it was tempered with disappointment at a different sort of loss. Eric Bailly was absent after testing positive for Covid-19 while Anthony Martial’s knee sprain may have curtailed his campaign. “If we get him back before the end of the season I will be surprised,” said Solskjær.
Yet if Edinson Cavani made for an ineffectual direct replacement for the Frenchman, his absence was certainly offset by the availability of Rashford and Greenwood. Each had withdrawn from England parties but, in a ploy the watching Sir Alex Ferguson might recognise from his playbook, were fit to feature for United.
Rashford, in particular, was the catalyst for the fightback. “Maybe the fireworks have to be lit at half-time,” added Solskjær.
Rashford helped find the fuse. He unleashed a swerving shot. Robert Sánchez parried it, but it began a 10-minute spell that culminated in his equaliser. Solskjær regularly entreats United to move the ball quickly. When they did, they unlocked Brighton; Bruno Fernandes released the advancing Rashford and he was unmarked to place a shot beyond Sánchez.
“The finish was excellent, calm and composed,” Solskjær said. “Marcus has been working on that a lot.” But Rashford’s return to action might prove short-lived, after he came off. “He got his foot caught in a tackle,” his managed added. “You just hope he can recover from it.”
So another homegrown attacker assumed the responsibility for finishing off Albion. Greenwood had hit the post with a ninth-minute half-volley, United’s finest moment of a first 45 minutes when Brighton had more ideas and greater incision, but his winner was also the consequence of pressure and again involved the ubiquitous Fernandes.
Solskjær could claim an assist of sorts, too. After Fernandes and Greenwood had a series of shots, he substituted Cavani. Greenwood was relocated into the middle and when Fernandes crossed and Paul Pogba miscued a volley, the teenager provided the instinctive reaction of a natural predator. He stooped to head and the despairing efforts of Sánchez and Ben White, who was on the line, were not enough to deny him a first league strike since December. “When he gets those goals, you know he is going to add another dimension to his game,” said Solskjær, a connoisseur of the close-range finish from his playing days.
He has managed all three scorers. “Danny was in the reserves when I was the coach. It’s great to see him back playing at his best.” He may not have voiced those sentiments when the Mancunian struck. Welbeck was an infrequent scorer for United but has specialised in scoring on his returns to his old club and became the first former player to score three Premier League goals against them after leaving.
It was a minor slice of history for him, but it came after a brilliant save. When Neal Maupay crossed from the right, Welbeck rose highest to connect emphatically with a header. Dean Henderson reacted adeptly to block it, but it fell for Welbeck to head in at the second attempt.
Even in conceding, it justified Solskjær’s choice. Henderson was preferred to David de Gea, giving the Englishman a seventh consecutive start and the Spaniard a sign the pecking order has shifted. “I’ve got two great keepers, two No 1s,” said Solskjær, downplaying the significance of it. “It is something that will create headlines and fish-and-chip wrapping paper. David will definitely play football for us again.”
Henderson excelled again to tip a Lewis Dunk header over the bar as, not for the first time, United struggled to defend free-kicks and corners. Brighton’s combination of technical, mobile players and a set-piece menace meant they could threaten in various ways. Bright movement could have brought a penalty; after 70 minutes, the lively Maupay looked to release the onrushing Welbeck, who seemed to be tugged down by Harry Maguire.
Graham Potter was more reasonable than many of his peers would have been. “I was a little surprised it wasn’t given live because it looks like a penalty,” the Brighton manager said. “But when it isn’t given, you can understand why VAR doesn’t overrule it.”