Perhaps the most instructive of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s note-hitting soundbites during his Manchester United tenure to date was his assertion following United’s win against Brighton on Saturday that the Reds, in their current guise, should only be judged once the going gets considerably tougher than a seven-game winning streak.

It is a pearl of the caretaker manager’s seemingly infinite wisdom that Mason Greenwood & Co. would do well to heed after United’s under-18s slipped out of the FA Youth Cup with a whimper on Monday night at the hands of Brighton, ironically, whose militarily-disciplined defensive showing gave United’s brightest bunch a rare taste of defeat.

Neil Ryan’s United side have played 16 games this season and won 12 of them. Two games were drawn and two more, now, have ended in defeat. It is reasonable enough, then, to consider the blank fired against Brighton a missed opportunity, particularly given the Seagulls had gone away with nothing in 11 of their last 17 outings.

All the more so when United, in the previous round, ended Chelsea’s unfathomable record of having won each of their previous 30 Youth Cup ties. It was a 4-3 victory, on the eve of Jose Mourinho’s sacking, that ranks among the most exciting games involving a United team in a very long time and, with the progress made at the club in the 35 days since, a genuine bid for Youth Cup success since 2011 seemed only logical.

 

This fourth-round tie was, of course, a considerable stage in its own right but it was telling to see first-team coaches Mick Phelan and Kieran McKenna in attendance, alongside Ryan Giggs, academy head Nicky Butt and former chief executive David Gill.

Their presence was perhaps testament to the regard in which the current crop are held at United’s academy and it would be far from surprising if Phelan and McKenna were in position at Leigh Sports Village to run the rule over Greenwood’s performance after Solskjaer admitted the 17-year-old, who has 22 goals in 19 appearances to his name this season, is ‘banging on the door’ for his first-team debut.

But Greenwood, whose hat-trick against Chelsea was the latest landmark in a season that has seen him sign his first professional contract, was left frustrated by a Brighton side whose defensive discipline was, at times, a joy to behold. United passed and probed with exhaustive persistence but the Brighton mass of ten players behind the ball observed their orders with a precision not often found at under-18 level.

It was the perfect execution of a soak-up-the-pressure-and-then-counter-attack game plan, with the lead from Peter Gwargis’ sixth-minute penalty doubled on 14 minutes by Ryan Longman.

United were stunned by the early set-back and, in truth, never truly threatened to stage a comeback, despite topping the shot count by a considerable distance. Greenwood was the driving force in the Reds’ attempt at a resurgence but his efforts from distance were as close as United would get to finding a foothold in the game, with Brighton’s defensive shape showing no sign of letting up for the entirety of the 90 minutes.

James Garner, the midfielder who sat on the bench for United’s Champions League game in Valencia in December, operated in a deep-lying midfield role but struggled to pick out a decisive pass to unlock the stubborn defence, with Brighton adding a third through Haydon Roberts ten minutes after the interval to all but consign United to defeat. Di'Shon Bernard bundled in a consolation at the death.

It was an unfamiliar feeling for United’s prospects but their discomfort at going three goals down to the southern league’s whipping boys was, encouragingly, plain to see. The Reds persevered in their attempts to forge an opening, despite Brighton’s resilience, and are sure to have learned far more about themselves from the shut-out than the 4-1 thrashing they handed to Stoke in their previous league fixture.

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