MANCHESTER, England: Manchester United has been beset with problems on and off the field, and the Premier League season is only four games old.
After already losing twice, results and performances have been disappointing; particularly when manager Erik ten Hag was expected to mount more of a challenge to defending champion Manchester City in his second year in charge.
Off the field, it has been even more turbulent.
Amid a backlash from fans, United eventually decided to part ways with Mason Greenwood, six months after a criminal investigation of attempted rape was closed by prosecutors.
The club then had to contend with allegations of domestic abuse made against Brazil winger Antony, who has been given a leave of absence to address the claims.
Meanwhile, United said on Thursday that Jadon Sancho would train away from the first team over a disciplinary issue.
Sancho used social media to air his grievances by saying he had been made a “scapegoat” after being cut from United’s squad for its last game before the international break, a 3-1 loss to Arsenal.
All of that comes at the same time as uncertainty continues to surround the ownership of the club, 10 months after it was put on the market.
Regarding the on-field matters, Ten Hag is also dealing with a spate of injuries to key players including Mason Mount, Luke Shaw and Raphael Varane.
In that sense, a two-week pause for international soccer might have been a welcome relief to the Dutch coach. The visit of Brighton to Old Trafford on Saturday, however, represents the potential of another setback for a United team that has looked vulnerable so far this season.
After all, Brighton beat United home and away last season and inflicted a first defeat on Ten Hag in his opening game as manager.
The south coast club seems serene in comparison to the troubles at United, but has had to handle its own upheaval over the past year after losing star players, its manager and a key executive. Still, the club has continued to over-perform, qualifying for this season’s Europa League and unearthing more talent in highly-rated striker Evan Ferguson.
Brighton have become a benchmark of how to run a soccer club well, with an outstanding recruitment set up and savvy, imaginative managerial hires.
In the last transfer window it brought in about $204 million in sales, with midfielders Moises Caicedo and Alexis Mac Allister the big departures. Last season, it made sales worth about $148 million, with Marc Cucurella, Yves Bissouma and Leandro Trossard making moves to Premier League rivals.
Manager Graham Potter was lured away by Chelsea, as well as recruitment chief Paul Winstanley. Yet Brighton secured its highest top flight position, finishing sixth under Potter’s replacement, Roberto De Zerbi, advanced to the semifinals of the FA Cup and qualified for Europe.
“We are always prepared for a head coach suddenly leaving for whatever reason,” Brighton owner Tony Bloom said this week. “But until you bring one in and see how they settle, you really don’t know how they are going to work out. We were extremely fortunate that we got someone of such high quality as Roberto to come in.”
Brighton’s preparation for upheaval appears to be the secret to its success, six years after it was promoted to the top flight. There is an expectation that the league’s biggest clubs will try to lure its best talent, as was the case when Chelsea signed Caicedo and Mac Allister joined Liverpool.
“It was not unexpected that Alexis and Moises have left the club in the summer,” Bloom said. “But we’ve been prepared for a number of months.
“I prefer to be in the situation where lots of clubs and lots of the media are talking about our players, which means we’re doing something right as a club and obviously those players are performing really well on the pitch.”
Ferguson, who scored a hat trick in Brighton’s 3-1 win against Newcastle before the international break, has already been linked with a move to United.
It’s a measure of Brighton’s growing ambition that it has signed highly-rated Barcelona forward Ansu Fati on a season-long loan.
United are still trying to recover from a series of mistakes made in the transfer market since Alex Ferguson retired as manager in 2013. It has been 10 years since the storied club won its last league title, but there is encouragement Ten Hag is moving it in the right direction after finishing third last year, qualifying for the Champions League and winning the League Cup.
The former Ajax coach’s impressive first year in charge gave rise to hope he could mount a credible title challenge this season.
That could yet materialize, but it has been far from the start he would have wanted.