Manchester United manager Marc Skinner said it is ‘credit’ to his team that Brighton set up with defensive tactics at Leigh Sports Village on Sunday because opponents are increasingly aware of how dangerous the Red Devils are going forward.
The Seagulls lined up in a solid 4-5-1 system without the ball and sought to squeeze the space in midfield to prevent the likes of Ella Toone, Jackie Groenen and Katie Zelem picking passes between the lines. Their own attacking was largely limited to counters and breakaways.
It worked pretty well for them in the first half. Space became a little more available after the break as substitutions altered the game and players grew more tired, but it was still only a single goal from United’s Leah Galton – avoidable from a Brighton perspective as the ball slipped agonisingly through the grasp of goalkeeper Katie Startup – that decided the contest in the end.
Skinner’s team could have scored more on another day. Martha Thomas had a penalty appeal waved away in the first half, before the same player also glanced a second half shot off the post and saw an effort hacked off the goal-line following another Startup fumble.
But he revealed that the message to his players at half-time was to play with a more mature attitude and be calmer in the key moments. Ultimately, it is a learning curve that will serve the team not just for the rest of this season but into the next one as they continue to aim high.
“These are moments we will learn from and at half-time we just clarified – go out and play like mature players and stop making childish, rushed decisions,” the boss explained. “Learn from this, use it an experience, because more and more teams will start to do that against us.”
Crucially, United also held on at the end as Brighton began to launch the ball into the penalty area in the final moments in the hope of forcing an equaliser. That was something they had failed to do against West Ham only a few weeks ago and on several other occasions this season – that West Ham result in particular could yet prove costly in the hunt for Champions League qualification.
There were fears ahead of this season that United would struggle to score enough goals to keep up with the top clubs – it had previously been a weakness even before five forwards left in the summer. But it hasn’t been the case and, as things stand, Skinner’s side have outscored Manchester City, albeit having played one game more, and were also on comparable numbers to Chelsea prior to the reigning champions suddenly plundering 14 goals in their last two games alone.
The front three of Alessia Russo, Martha Thomas and Leah Galton, with the aforementioned Toone pulling the strings as a ‘number 10’ has taken a little time to gel, but is now firing. After being made to wait for her chance at the start of the season, Russo is arguably now the top English striker in the WSL, jumping ahead of Ellen White just months before Euro 2022.
United have therefore had to deal with opposing teams approaching games in different ways, just as Brighton did at the weekend, forcing them to be a little cleverer and more efficient.
“It’s going to be tight because teams know how attacking we can be and they’re going to try and stop us doing that and hit us on the counter,” Skinner reflected after the win was secured.
“More importantly, it’s credit to our players that teams set up like that.”