Sunday 6 May 2018

Jekyll and Hyde United hit unwanted hat-trick

United may yet reach 83 points and are still likely to finish runners - up, left in the shade only by the all-conquering brilliance of the Manchester City juggernaut. Yet this has been a bizarre Jekyll and Hyde season, one that hit another dissappointing dip on the south coast. The Reds have beaten Arsenal (twice), Tottenham (twice), Chelsea, Liverpool and City in recent months, but yet have now lost to all three of the promoted sides - Huddersfield, Newcastle and Brighton, scoring only once and conceding four. That, more than anything, encapsulates the peaks and troughs of an improved but strangely erratic season. A baffling lack of consistency had continually proved our undoing.

The Champions League KO against Sevilla came hot on the heels of the victory over Liverpool, we lost to West Brom a week after that win of all wins at the Etihad, and this defeat at the Amex brought us crashing back down to earth again, a matter of days after we shot down the Gunners with Marouane Fellaini's late intervention. I've given up trying to put my finger on why this keeps happening - why every belting victory is followed by the desperate low of defeat when it's least expected. It's clearly not a question of ability and talent - if that's the case then how come we've beaten all of our heavyweight rivals? Maybe it's because Jose doesn't know how to approach the fixtures against the league's lesser lights and that uncertainty filters through to the players. Maybe it's a question of mentality and attitude. Whatever the issue is, we're not going to get anywhere until it's resolved. We don't have a proper captain, a leader, in this multinational, vastly talented and expensively assembled squad, and that's something that holds sway in feeling a certain degree of empathy for the manager - you can't just go out, buy a player and give him the armband. The art of having a natural born captain simply doesn't work like that.

The Seagulls needed the points more with the whiff of survival in their nostrils, and United haven't got much to play for in the league with the FA Cup final looming large in a fortnight's time. Perhaps with that season - defining tussle with Chelsea in mind, it was a heavily rotated United side for the Friday night fixture, with six changes from the Arsenal tie and a rare run out for many of the Reds fringe players.

Jose's shop - window eleven failed to impress, with wantaway full-back Matteo Darmian left bruised and bewildered with the audacious dribbling and directness of Brighton winger Anthony Knockaert. Why Victor Lindelof - comfortably our man of the match against Arsenal - was overlooked in favour of a rusty and undercooked Marcos Rojo is beyond me. Paul Pogba briefly spluttered into life as United pressed late on, but the Frenchman was otherwise quiet. With Romelu Lukaku injured and Alexis Sanchez rested, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were given rare chances to shine. If this was a chance to prove the pair of them should start more often, it was not one they seized.
It has been a season of flux for Rashford, whose megawatt glow has dimmed since the turn of the year. Since then, there have been only three goals - one against Yeovil and two against Liverpool - with only one full 90 minutes completed in that period. Rust has begun to creep into the golden game of one of England's - and United's genuine 24-carat talents. Martial has been linked with a move away, and it's not hard to see why on this evidence.

Nemanja Matic needs a rest and Marouane Fellaini - who has not exactly done his already questionable popularity any good with recent comments over his contract - should not have started. It was a mish-mash selection and one that proved the second string aren't of the standard required.

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