The result, a 1-0 reverse, will make little difference to United’s season because they are still five points clear of third-place Liverpool in the race for runners-up spot – and their north-west rivals have other fish to fry having reached the Champions League final.
But a half-hearted display on the south coast, which saw Pascal Gross clinch only Brighton’s second ever victory over United in their history and their first since 1982, amplified complaints that Jose Mourinho’s side have underperformed and failed to entertain in equal measure – leaving them suffering by juxtaposition with Pep Guardiola’s champions.
Gross clinched victory with a header which just about crept over the line in the second half – it took goalline technology to confirm it – and the three points mean Brighton, admirably managed by former Republic defender Chris Hughton, are guaranteed Premier League survival. But it needed no clever tech to analyse United’s miserable display and confirm they are a long way short of their Manchester rivals.
In fact, judging United’s season is becoming increasingly difficult. They are still destined to finish second, which is hardly a disgrace given City’s untouchable form, and they have an FA Cup Final to come at Wembley on May 19 which could see the campaign end in silverware.
This match did little to ease those worries. United were below par against a Brighton side which created the better chances in the first half, notably through a long-range effort from Glenn Murray which was well saved by David De Gea.
By contrast United were poor – Juan Mata, Paul Pogba and Nemanja Viidc in particular – and had only one touch in the Brighton penalty area in the opening 45 minutes.
They resorted too often to launching high balls towards Marouane Fellaini, a tactic which has worked plenty of times late in matches but which smells of desperation when deployed in the first half. Needless to say, Brighton’s Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk, famed for their ‘nightclub bouncers’ back line, had few problems dealing with the threat.
Fellaini, hooked in the second half by his manager, did have the ball in the net at one stage but he was clearly offside and despite Mourinho’s protestations that his team were focused on getting the four points that would guarantee second place, the impression was that United were on cruise control.
We have seen this too often before – most recently in a home defeat against West Brom which resulted in Mourinho leaving key players out for the next game against Bournemouth. So it will be interesting to see his reaction when his team head for West Ham on Thursday May 10 – and indeed when they play against Chelsea in the Cup Final at Wembley.
There is far less difficulty in assessing Brighton’s season given they were clear favourites to be relegated on their return to the top flight after 34 years in the lower leagues, but have done so much better than expected.
Survival in itself is impressive for the likeable Hughton - and at times they have done more than that, even hijacking the top 10 from time to time and winning away games that many thought they would be incapable of.
Hughton’s side went ahead after 56 minutes here when Jose Izqueirdo’s cross was headed over the line by Gross despite a last-ditch clearance from Marcos Rojo. It took goalline technology to confirm but it was no more than the home side deserved.
Some wonderful skill from Anthony Knockaert set up Izqueirdo for another strong chance while the reliable Matt Ryan kept out Marcus Rashford, who had been handed a rare start by Mourinho because of injury to Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku – and failed take advantage.
That, however, was a rare highlight in a flat performance from United who left their fans deflated and frustrated, not for the first time this season despite maintaining second place in the table. Are they just suffering by comparison? Or is there something intrinsically wrong with this inconsistent United side? It’s a debate, after this display, which will rage on.
Ryan 7, Bruno 7, Duffy 7, Dunk 7, Bong 7, Knockaert 8, Stephens 6, Propper 7, Iqueirdo 7 (March 88), Gross 8 (Kayal 84; 6), Murray 7 (Ulloa 92).
De Ge 7, Darmian 5 (Shaw 68; 6), Smalling 6, Rojo 6 (McTominay 76; 6), Young 6, Pogba 5, Matic 5, Fellaini 6 (Lingard 68), Mata 5, Rashford 6, Martial 6.