Manchester United’s biggest strength is fast becoming a big weakness again – George Smith

After being beaten 2-1 by Brighton & Hove Albion and 4-0 by Brentford in their opening two games of last season, it was unimaginable for United to possibly start this term even more sluggishly. But after Brighton put them to the sword at Old Trafford on Saturday, winning 3-1, the Reds have now lost three of their opening five league matches for the first time in the Premier League era.

After starting last season with back-to-back defeats, United responded with four successive victories, meaning they amassed nine points from their first five games. This season, they have taken just six and – at the time of writing – they sit 13th in the table.

Following another big-money recruitment drive over the summer, United&aposs supporters have every right to be disgruntled with the way their team has started this season. Though the Reds started brightly against the Seagulls, who have now won each of the last four league meetings between the two, the early optimism quickly drained after Danny Welbeck fired the visitors into a 20th-minute lead.

Deploying a new-look diamond in midfield to cover the absences of natural wide players, Erik ten Hag appeared to have pulled off a tactical masterstroke with the way United started the game. They were energised, in control of the ball and knocking on the Brighton door in the opening exchanges.

But as was so often the case when United conceded first last season, albeit not necessarily at Old Trafford, they retreated and invited pressure. The Seagulls, one of the best sides in Europe these days, added to their tally after half-time through Pascal Gross, who has now scored seven times against United, and Joao Pedro.

Brighton&aposs three-goal haul brought United&aposs number of goals conceded this season up to 10, meaning they have averaged two goals conceded per game so far. Only Wolves have failed to find the net against them so far this season and that would have been a very different story had they have brought their shooting boots to Old Trafford on the opening weekend.

As things stand, only Burnley and Wolves have conceded more league goals than United so far, sieving 11 each. By comparison, United had only conceded seven goals at this stage last season.

Of course there are caveats to take into account, not least the fact that United are adapting to life with a new goalkeeper after more than a decade of David de Gea being stationed between the posts. They are also without two key defenders in Raphael Varane and Luke Shaw because of injury issues.

Though De Gea, Varane and Shaw all played key roles in helping United rack up a league-best 17 clean sheets last season, United still have a strong enough pool of defensive players to be neater and more composed. Saturday&aposs defeat to Brighton marked the first time that the Reds had conceded three goals in a game at home since the 5-0 defeat to Liverpool in October 2021.

Though you could say it was a flash in the pan, signs of defensive concern were apparent against Nottingham Forest last month, where the Reds went 2-0 down inside the opening four minutes before mounting a recovery. Wolves, as already cited, would have done damage in the season opener if they had been more composed.

United have now conceded five goals at home so far this season. They shipped 10 on their own patch in the whole of last term but they are already halfway to matching that tally after three games.

Though every player within the team must help with the defensive effort, those specifically paid to keep the ball out of the net have not done enough. Andre Onana, though his distribution is outstanding, has so far done nothing to suggest that he is a better shot-stopper than De Gea, Lisandro Martinez is not at the peak of his powers, appearing lethargic and off the pace, and the full-back situation is far from being settled.

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