Dalot and Højlund seal late win for Manchester United at Brighton

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Diogo Dalot;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Diogo Dalot</a> opens the scoring in the 73rd minute for <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Manchester United;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Manchester United</a> at Brighton.</span><span>Photograph: David Klein/Reuters</span>

If one manager’s future is settled, the other’s hangs in the balance. Roberto De Zerbi’s departure from Brighton appears a case of parting as friends before a relationship turns sour when the two parties desire ­different things. He received a full-time guard of honour, a video ­montage celebrating “Il Capo” and the warmest applause.

“This morning, I went walking in the city thinking what we have done together and I think we gave our best, I gave my best, my players gave their best,” he told the crowd. “I’m sad but I know what I would like to do in my life.” He leaves a club where ­backroom continuity allows the loss of a manager to be only a glancing blow and his first nod was to Tony Bloom: “you are a great owner, do not forget that”.

“We didn’t find the right agreement to move on and stay together,” he explained later, revealing he and Bloom came to the decision together on Friday before informing the ­players. “There is not any club, no one has made an offer. I leave with two years left on my contract.”

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If the away fans were determined to enjoy themselves and celebrated Diogo Dalot’s and Rasmus Højlund’s goals like cup-final winners, United’s victory at Brighton was not nearly enough for Erik ten Hag. Only winning the FA Cup can possibly save him, and he might consider what happened to Louis van Gaal eight years ago to see what job security a Wembley win might bring.

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Chelsea Europa League if Manchester City win the FA Cup; Europa Conference League if Manchester United win the FA Cup

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“It’s amazing,” said Ten Hag in praising the United fans. “I said we have the best fans in the world and I mean this. I have never had this happen after a season like this which hasn’t been good enough.”

His second-season statistics are damning: a negative goal difference for the first time since 1990, the second lowest points total of the Premier League era with the lowest position, the most defeats in a Premier League season, and the concession of a record 58 goals. None of that will look good on a Powerpoint presentation for Big Sir Jim Ratcliffe et al as they consider whether continuity or a new manager is the best means of moving United’s sporting direction forward.

That only four of the starting lineup at Brighton were not given their United bow by Ten Hag ate into the regular argument he has not been able to build his own team. Lisandro Martínez’s first start since February did however offer a reminder of a heavy casualty list.

Another Ten Hag signing, Sofyan Amrabat, was full of effort but an inveterate carelessness in possession. Højlund, last summer’s flagship signing, was benched until the second half. His late goal showed what United paid £64m for. “He makes a very good impression,” said Ten Hag of player who has scored 16 this ­season. “It could always be better but don’t forget he had three injures this season. That broke his rhythm.”

United’s first-half approach was direct – and ineffective. Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay as a deep-lying partnership of false No 9s defeated the object. Brighton’s attacking interchanges were far more intricate, with De Zerbi, hands-in-pockets, cajoling them on.

The departing Italian will be recalled fondly for last season’s sixth place finish, resultant European adventures and the exciting style that made his and the club’s reputation. Ten Hag was lucky his team did not enter the half-time dressing room two or three down. Newcastle had meanwhile stripped away the chance of a league-table qualification for Europe.

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The second half saw Casemiro and Martínez forced into last-ditch ­clearances as Brighton stepped it up again with their high press. ­Lallana, leaving the club this summer, was given a standing ovation when subbed off. With little to play for beyond hurt pride, Ten Hag then withdrew Martínez and Fernandes. And when Amrabat gave the ball away one too many times, rejigged his defence by bringing on the departing Raphaël Varane, pushing Casemiro forward from central defence, where the Brazilian’s last two performances have been significant improvements from a hapless performance at Crystal Palace.

Such moves were made with Wembley in mind, where Ten Hag must pull off the most notable heist of his career and beat Manchester City. Dalot’s cool finish for the first goal came against the run of play, though by then the game had developed an end-of-season flavour. De Zerbi could make his fond farewells while hinting the Premier League has not seen the last of him. “Without football it’s not easy for me,” he said. “I will smoke more cigarettes. I will watch 100 games per week.”