The Media Review: Manchester United

How the newspapers and websites reported Sunday's FA Cup semi-final.

By Nick Szczepanik • 24 April 2023

By Paul Hazelwood
Albion players show their disappointment after losing the shoot-out.

A first Wembley clean sheet, but no maiden Wembley win: it was the sort of day when Albion fans were looking for consolation. Some came in the verdicts of the media on Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United, when even defeat on penalties after a nil-nil draw drew praise for the men in blue and white.

In the i, Daniel Storey wrote that ‘it will be Ze Derbi not De Zerbi in the FA Cup final and Solly will be the hardest word for Brighton for the next few days at least. It will hurt for now and for a bit longer too. That’s the problem with fine margins: the fall always feels greater.

“Brighton are currently in the sweet spot of their existence, where their supporters are enthralled about where they are going but still have a vivid picture of where they came from and what they went through to get here.  

“Watching Brighton is an intoxicating live experience. They taunt you into pressing them high up the pitch, only for Adam Webster and Lewis Dunk to play passes down narrow corridors and tiny passages. When they have beaten that press, your guess is as good as mine. Sometimes it’s a left-back stealing forward on the right, another time a defensive midfielder overlapping down the left. They are a box of tricks that makes defending their threat like herding cats with a blindfold on. They are so technically proficient that watching them slightly misfire makes you wince and groan. If they had picked the right pass on the break, they would have danced their way back to Wembley. But the flaws gave United reason for hope.”

Oliver Holt, the Daily Mail chief sportswriter, harked back to Albion’s disappointment against the same opponents in 1983. “This was not the final, of course, but the heartbreak was still there,” he wrote. “And the sense of missed opportunity. The feeling of what might have been. The team that has lit up the Premier League this season, a club that has won plaudits for navigating the madness of modern football with grace and style and smarts, were the better side against United, still reeling from their Europa League humbling by Sevilla last week, and got stronger and stronger as the game went on.


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Dunk on devastating defeat

“There was a moment in extra time when it felt as if Kaoru Mitoma must score but he overran it in the United box. There was a moment in normal time when it felt as if Deniz Undav must score but the ball bounced off his shin when he tried to control it and only had David de Gea to beat.

“There was a moment when it felt as if Danny Welbeck must score when he rose highest at a corner a few yards out but he headed it too high. And so the opportunity ebbed away and this semi-final went to penalties and United held their nerve and Brighton blinked first.”

In The Guardian, Jonathan Wilson thought that “Brighton will wonder how on earth they didn’t win a game they dominated for long periods, but it is Manchester United who will face Manchester City in the final on 3 June.

“Every game Brighton play these days feels like a rebuke to their opponents. This is how you build a squad. This is how you source young talent. This is how you create a culture than can replicate even when key elements are hived off. It’s not just about blowing hundreds of millions of pounds in the transfer market. It’s certainly not about bringing in superannuated stars for some sort of misguided nostalgia trip.

“It feels a long time since Brighton won at Old Trafford on the opening weekend of the season. Back then Graham Potter was still Brighton manager, Enock Mwepu had not been forced to retire and Leandro Trossard had not been sold to Arsenal. That the loss of those three has not derailed Brighton says everything about their planning and their capacity to uncover young talent. Back then Alexis Mac Allister was just another player and not a world champion, while Moisés Caicedo was the discovery du jour, a mantle that passed to Evan Ferguson and now, as the other two have established themselves, arguably belongs to Julio Enciso.


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De Zerbi's semi-final reaction

“United are not the only team who must look at their own squad and wonder how they have managed to spend so much to end up with such a patchwork. Antony and Jadon Sancho cost £160m between them, but at the moment on form you’d rather have Mitoma and Solly March, his miss in the shootout notwithstanding, who cost a total of £3m.

"Perhaps it’s unfair to cherry-pick pairings, but even in defeat Brighton’s achievement in getting as far as they have, in playing the football they do, on such a comparatively limited budget, offers hope to everybody who believes football should be about more than simply the wealth of a club’s owner.

"This had a real sense of occasion: Brighton in only the third semi-final in their history, against a United side whose hunger for success has only been sharpened by recent failures. It’s also indicative of the modern United that they had only 40% possession, that – despite Ten Hag’s principles – they were forced into reactive football. But, crucially, they were able to resist.”

Goalless games, of course, are tricky to report, and Dave Kidd of The Sun was one of the few who mentioned what actually happened in the game: “It was Brighton who were playing most of the early football. Kaoru Mitoma cut inside and was floored by Antony on the edge of the United box with Alexis Mac Allister’s free-kick pushed way by a full-stretch De Gea.

“United threatened once in the first half-hour when Christian Eriksen fed Bruno Fernandes whose shot was pushed away by Robert Sanchez. But Brighton, without their excellent young centre-forward Evan Ferguson, were lacking a finisher.

When Solly March reached the line and cut back, Danny Welbeck failed to connect, then Mitoma and Pervis Estupinan went for the same shot and the ball cannoned to safety. Then, whe Mitoma darted inside again, Enciso drilled just wide.

“Mitoma, one of the sensations of the English season, was soon tracking back to rob Antony with an excellent sliding tackle. United skipper Fernandes was having one of his ratbag afternoons - rolling around on the floor and squabbling with ref Craig Pawson.

“When Casemiro was booked for a foul on Mac Allister, Fernandes gave Pawson a gobbing, then another when a Brighton player wasn’t booked for a foul soon after. Then the Portuguese reacted as though he had taken a headshot from a sniper’s nest after a challenge from Estupinan and Pawson was having none of it.

“After being bossed for 40 minutes, United went in at the break with their tails up. Yet it was De Gea who was busy again at the start of the second half. Enciso let rip with a swerving shot which the United keeper pushed over, then Welbeck nodded over from the next corner. March’s cross-shot was then tipped wide by De Gea and Ten Hag sent on Fred in place of Eriksen.

“After 100 minutes of extended sulking, Fernandes was finally replaced by big Wout Weghorst. United were the livelier side now, and after a neat passing move, Rashford’s deflected shot was brilliantly saved by Sanchez.

“Mitoma, clearly exhausted but still willing, went on a weaving run but caught De Gea in the shin as he attempted to shoot.Shaw summed up the action with the final kick of the match with a free-kick from the centre circle which lolloped into the arms of Sanchez.

The Times’ football correspondent, Henry Winter, was similarly unimpressed.  “This semi-final certainly felt like a long and winding cul-de-sac for a while,” he wrote. “The quality was all in the shoot-out as the two hours of football were far from classic, beyond further evidence of Moisés Caicedo’s many gifts and the draining nature of the season. Players looked tired. Chances were at a premium. There was more life behind the goals for much of the 120 minutes.

“Brighton began brightly, often in 2-4-4 formation, passing the ball around almost as eagerly as the fans did with their inflatable, blue-and-white beach balls. Sussex by the Brent Reservoir was quite a sight.

“De Gea made athletic saves from Alexis Mac Allister’s dipping free kick and Enciso’s fierce shot, while Robert Sánchez denied Bruno Fernandes, Christian Eriksen and Rashford. Fernandes, so good when focused, spent too long debating decisions with Pawson and staying down when touched before displaying his famed swift powers of recovery.

“Caicedo was superb. Brighton have brought so much joy to English football this season, are such a model of a well-run club, and it would be fitting if they made it to Europe. There was a reminder of disparity in resources with the £82 million Antony costing £20 million more than Brighton’s starting XI.

“The heavens opened up, the game failed to, and it meandered towards the shoot-out. Mac Allister and Casemiro swapped confident penalties. So did Pascal Gross and Dalot. These kicks were so good, Deniz Undav making it 3-2 to Brighton with a unstoppable low shot.

“Sancho consigned all those bad memories here to history with an emphatic kick into the roof of the net. Brighton regained the initiative through Pervis Estupiñán. Rashford, showing his strength of character, promptly made it 4-4. On it went. Dunk put the pressure back on United with his clinical kick. As the rain cascaded down, Marcel Sabitzer whipped his kick across Sánchez, the goalkeeper got a hand to it, but it was too powerful.

“Adam Webster made it 6-5, and the blue-and-white flags waved again, but were lowered when Weghorst slotted his kick past Sánchez. Then came March and Lindelof — and to the Victor, the spoils.”

The last consoling word goes to Samuel Meade of the Daily Mirror website. “It doesn't matter whether they lose managers or key men, they just keep rolling on. Brighton have long been hailed for how they operate as a club, often punching above their weight. This term though they've, by some distance, produced their best season-long performance.

“Europe beckons for the Seagulls, who may well see one or two of their prized assets leave this summer, whilst their manager too will attract attention. For huge chunks of their semi-final though they were the better side, dominating possession against United.

“They look incredibly comfortable in their own skin with their midseason manager change perhaps making them even better to watch. Whether or not the personnel changes at the Amex remains to be seen, but the decision makers are more than competent and seeing them in the latter stages of competitions like this could well become a regular thing.”