After six wins on the spin for interim boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United are in buoyant mood ahead of Brighton’s visit to Old Trafford on Saturday.
The Seagulls, who are hoping to bounce back after losing 1-0 to Liverpool last time out, have become United’s bogey side since being promoted 18 months ago.
Here, we preview Saturday’s encounter.
United are currently on their best run of league form since Jose Mourinho’s first season in charge, looking to secure a sixth consecutive win for the first time since January 2017. Solskjaer is also hoping to become the first manager in the club’s history to win his first six league games in charge.
And the Norwegian’s confidence will have been boosted after passing his first major assignment at the helm, clinching a hard-fought 1-0 win over Tottenham at Wembley.
Remarkably, having been eight points adrift of Arsenal when the 45-year-old took over, United can move above the Gunners into fifth with three points against Brighton.
But Chris Hughton’s men are certainly no pushovers. In fact, they are aiming to claim an unlikely hat-trick over their hosts having beaten United at the Amex Stadium in May and August.
Travelling to Old Trafford, especially with United in this form, is an entirely different proposition though and history does not favour the south coast side; they have lost all eight of their previous away games to ‘big six’ teams, managing just one goal in the process.
Much has been made of United’s refreshing, attack-minded approach under Solskjaer. With the players lifted by his arrival, they have been a slick and clinical unit going forward, encapsulated by the rapid interplay between Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba.
While Solskjaer instructed his players to sit deep and absorb much of Tottenham’s pressure last week, United will play much more on the front foot against Brighton.
Solskjaer is expected to line up in a 4-3-3 with Pogba, Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic in midfield behind an attacking trident most likely comprised of Rashford, Martial and Lingard.
Brighton will be compact and extremely well-drilled. When the sides met Old Trafford in November 2017, the Seagulls were tough to break down, with United needing a Lewis Dunk own goal to secure a narrow win.
Speaking afterwards, Mourinho said it was the hardest match of the season United had encountered up to that point.
Liverpool also laboured against Brighton’s organisation and grit last week, with Mohamed Salah’s penalty proving the difference.
However, with seven goals in their most recent two league games at home, United should have enough firepower to overcome Brighton’s rearguard.
While Rashford is in hot form, Pogba has stepped up under Solskjaer. The Frenchman bagged braces in the wins over Huddersfield and Bournemouth before providing a beautiful assist for Rashford’s winner against Spurs.
With four goals and four assists under Solskjaer, United’s record signing looks back to his best and should be hugely influential on Saturday.
Matic and Herrera’s willingness to sit back and cover allows Pogba to push higher up the pitch and make runs into the box, which has allowed him to rediscover his goalscoring form. No Premier League midfielder has a higher xG (2.24) than the 25-year-old since Solskjaer took over and the caretaker boss will be hoping for more of the same from the revitalised World Cup winner.
The veteran striker has been a handful for United in recent meetings and, with eight goals already this term, is by far Brighton’s most significant threat.
However, the 35-year-old has gone seven games without a goal, with his most recent strike coming in the 3-1 win over his former side Crystal Palace on December 4.
Determined to end his dry spell against United, Victor Lindelof and Phil Jones will need to be at their best to contain Murray’s physical, bruising style of play.
United haven’t always found joy against Brighton but with confidence sky-high, we’re backing them to continue Solskjaer’s 100 per cent record.
On the back of successive clean sheets in the league for the first time this season, David de Gea – who was outstanding in the win over Spurs – will be confident of shutting out Brighton’s attackers.
We’re backing a 3-0 win for United, setting the Red Devils up nicely ahead of next week’s FA Cup clash away to Arsenal.
* odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell