Not for the first time and almost certainly not for the last, this mercurial bunch of Manchester United players served up a night’s work that defied cogent analysis. They should have been buried by Brentford in the first half but turned up for the second and pulled clear with exceptionally-worked goals from Anthony Elanga, Mason Greenwood and the substitute Marcus Rashford. Some of their speed and slickness after the break bore the hallmarks of Ralf Rangnick, who will be delighted by the eventual shift in gear. Ivan Toney’s late consolation was the least his side deserved and Brentford will rue a number of missed chances.
Brentford would like Christian Eriksen to help add guile to their customarily high-octane approach but their existing forces proved more than capable of asking questions. They pegged United back in the early exchanges, a booming long throw from Mads Bech Sørensen setting the tone, and Mathias Jensen could have done better than snatch a volley harmlessly wide after a clearance sat up for him on the edge of the area.
Rangnick had kept faith with Elanga, who was bright in the wasteful draw at Aston Villa, while reintroducing the newly-available Cristiano Ronaldo and Scott McTominay. When Elanga found several yards of space beyond the far post and looped a header across goal, the league debutant Jonas Lössl’s uncertain punch forced rapid evasive action from Sergi Canós as attackers lurked.
That was scratchy defending, but United soon topped it in a chaotic spell that saw Brentford come close four times in two minutes. When a loose pass at the back allowed Christian Nørgaard to send Jensen away, the angle favoured the home midfielder rather than David de Gea. But the finish was tame and De Gea could save with a foot; the ball stayed live and, as bodies piled into the box, Vitaly Janelt’s shot was deflected narrowly off target.
Almost immediately afterwards, shambolic attempts to deal with a Brentford corner allowed Sørensen a snap shot that looked goalbound until Alex Telles, who knew little about his intervention, snicked it behind. Brentford were not done: the whirlwind of pressure ended with Nørgaard blazing over after Jensen’s knockback and, much like his compatriot moments previously, could curse himself for not opening the scoring.
United should have been behind. As proceedings took a consistent shape they dominated the ball but rarely caused Brentford, who were willing to sit deep in the safe knowledge that they could wreak havoc on the counter, any flutters. Diogo Dalot shot wide with a respectable effort from distance but, whenever Brentford broke, the visitors’ shape was all over the place. In the 33rd minute the point was made again when Ivan Toney pulled out to the left and, with three forwards faced by a single defender, could offer Jensen the chance to make amends. The midfielder was through again but, as with his earlier chance, opted against putting his foot through the ball. He went for precision and, in an identical sequence, De Gea repelled with his left leg.
The half had passed United by, although they forced a late corner when Elanga fleetingly got away on the left. Rangnick cannot be expected to coax a sustained breakneck tempo out of his charges in a mere period of months but the difference in the sides’ intensities was stark.
It is not a new theme, but it can quickly be patched over by one of United’s disparate individuals. Two minutes after the interval Ronaldo almost did what he so often does, meeting Bruno Fernandes’ chipped cross and heading onto the bar with Lössl nowhere. A corner resulted and Brentford sprung upfield with Jensen yet again the player in space. From the most difficult of his opportunities, he shot straight at De Gea.
There was a sense of inevitability that Brentford would regret his wastefulness. United’s passing had exuded a mite more purpose since half-time and it was a ball of supreme, if uncharacteristic, ingenuity that carved the Bees open. Fred took their back line out with a clipped, deftly angled ball from deep that found Elanga making an equally intelligent run into the box. His first touch controlled the ball and, with Lössl offering little challenge as it sat up, his second was a purposeful header into the corner.
The complexion had changed for good. Brentford attempted to rally but could not regain their elasticity. Lössl bundled a McTominay shot behind and a quick second goal appeared likely. It came after a chested pass from Ronaldo sent Fernandes running clear and Greenwood, hitherto invisible, profited from an unselfish pass across.
United had shown their opponents how to be lethal on the counter and another lesson followed. Rashford had recently replaced Greenwood and scored his first goal since 30 October with conviction after excellent work from McTominay had let Fernandes tee him up. Toney’s bundled late effort meant little.