After 588 minutes of football and 47 days, the great drought is over. Cristiano Ronaldo, the scorer of more goals than anyone in the history of football, scored a goal, his first of 2022 and his first as a 37‑year‑old. In the process a serial Champions League winner put Manchester United in the position to return to the European elite.
Ronaldo had not gone seven games without a goal since 2008-09 and Brighton have never won at Old Trafford. The first half suggested history could be made but Albion ended up ruing a disastrous three-minute spell when Ronaldo struck and Lewis Dunk was sent off. And on a night when the other Manchester team vanquished Portuguese opponents, two Sporting alumni sent United up to fourth after Bruno Fernandes joined his compatriot on the scoresheet.
Ralf Rangnick and Ronaldo can feel like United’s odd couple but each played his part in the first of twin turning points. The “godfather of gegenpressing” could savour the sight of his team belatedly benefiting from hassling and harrying high up the pitch in his favourite fashion. Closing down changed the game. Scott McTominay picked the pocket of Yves Bissouma, dispossessing him and finding Ronaldo. His barren spell was ended with a trademark strike, Ronaldo requiring little backlift to whip in a shot from 20 yards. “We get punished by a world-class finish from a world-class player,” the Brighton manager, Graham Potter, lamented.
“An amazing goal,” Rangnick said. It was just Ronaldo’s second in open play under him and, as the other was a tap-in, perhaps a first glimpse of Ronaldo at his best under the new regime. Arguably, however, that came earlier when Adam Webster’s stray touch released Ronaldo, who had been lurking offside, and he sent Jadon Sancho through on goal with a cute backheel, though Robert Sánchez saved his shot. “In the last weeks, definitely the best performance from him,” Rangnick said. “Energetically he was always trying to help teammates.”
Belying his age, Ronaldo was relentless and rampant. He ought to have doubled the lead with a header, as should Fernandes with a shot, each when supplied by the other. Sánchez saved on both occasions. When Fernandes belatedly did add the second, only his fourth goal in 28 league games, it came courtesy of positive thinking from the substitute Paul Pogba. Rather than waste stoppage-time seconds, he took a quick free-kick in his own half to send Fernandes streaking clear.
Pogba had an assist. So, in a way, did Rangnick. “In the second half we were more aggressive, we were primed to intercept and attack them in higher positions,” he said.
He had instructed his wingers to press Brighton’s centre-backs. Anthony Elanga duly did and robbed Dunk. The Brighton captain hauled the 19-year-old down and, while Peter Bankes settled for a yellow card, United protested vociferously – earning Fernandes a booking of his own – before the VAR, Jarred Gillet, sent Bankes to the monitor. A pitchside review later, the card was upgraded to red. It was a familiar feeling for Dunk – no player has more Premier League red cards since 2017 – but irritating for Brighton.
“It was a yellow card live, Webster was there on the cover,” Potter said. “It is not clear and obvious. I don’t understand the intervention.”
Proud but frustrated, he deemed this a missed opportunity. Potter’s 100th Premier League game threatened to be a landmark occasion. Brighton out-passed and out-thought United in a first half when they had 59% of possession and eight shots, and Potter’s decisions to switch to a midfield diamond and install the outstanding Jakub Moder as his No 10 looked catalytic choices.
Rangnick had changed formation himself within 25 minutes, but to try to halt Brighton’s domination. David de Gea was twice required to deny the elusive Moder, first from a shot from an acute angle, then a towering header, while the Poland midfielder picked out Bissouma, who surged forward from the base of the diamond to blaze over.
If the sports psychologist Sascha Lense’s work to address United’s damaging habit of losing first-half leads felt redundant when they limped in level at the interval, they responded. “First half was Mr Hyde, second half Dr Jekyll,” Rangnick said. The enduring concern is that a schizophrenic side cannot put together a 90-minute performance but at least the Theatre of Dreams is not becoming the Theatre of Draws.
“After three draws, two of them at home, this was a very important win,” Rangnick said. This time United could enjoy the rarities of scoring a second goal in a game under him and holding on to an advantage.
Not without nervy moments, however, as Moder curled a long-range shot against the bar and the former United striker Danny Welbeck headed over. “We should have killed the game off much earlier,” Rangnick said. For once it did not cost them.