Second-half goals from Anthony Elanga, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford ensured Manchester United moved to within two points of the Champions League places with a morale-boosting 3-1 win at Brentford.
Ralf Rangnick’s side were indebted to the brilliance of David de Gea in the first half as he twice kept out efforts from Mathias Jensen from point-blank range.
But United punished Brentford’s profligacy in the second period as Elanga met Fred’s cross to score only his second league goal for the club (55) before Greenwood tapped home Bruno Fernandes’ pass (62) for his first league goal since October.
Cristiano Ronaldo looked disgruntled as he was replaced by Rashford, but Rangnick’s change was vindicated as the substitute’s tidy finish from another Fernandes pass put the seal on an impressive second-half showing (77).
The result means United stay in seventh place in the Premier League courtesy of Tottenham’s dramatic 3-2 win at Leicester earlier on Wednesday – but now level on points with Arsenal in sixth.
Ivan Toney scrambled home his fifth Premier League goal of the season – and only third in open play – with five minutes remaining but Brentford remain in 14th place on 23 points, still 10 points clear of the relegation zone.
Brentford: Lossl (5), Jansson (6), Pinnock (6), Sorensen (6), Roerslev (5), Canos (5), Jensen (7), Janelt (5), Norgaard (6), Mbeumo (6), Toney (6).
Subs: Henry (6), Wissa (6), Baptiste (6).
Man Utd: De Gea (8), Telles (6), Dalot (8), Varane (7), Lindelof (6), Fred (7), McTominay (7), Elanga (8), Greenwood (7), Fernandes (7), Ronaldo (6).
Subs: Maguire (6), Rashford (7), Matic (6).
Man of the match: Anthony Elanga.
Rangnick’s men rise from slumber
Brentford head coach Thomas Frank said afterwards: “I’m unbelievably proud of my team. We are the smallest club in the Premier League, Manchester United the biggest. We destroyed them in the first half, they didn’t have a sniff, three huge chances and there could only have been one winner of this game. They are unbelievably lucky. I know all the stuff about taking chances. They changed the system against little Brentford.”
United would emerge as deserved winners in the second half, but quite why they took so long to get going will provide their Champions League rivals with plenty of encouragement. For large periods, they were unconvincing again but for Rangnick, this was welcome respite.
United have now gone 13 Premier League games in London unbeaten for the first time since 2013 but they were second best throughout the opening period. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City all suffered here this season to varying degrees, and the visitors were given an early warning inside 80 seconds when Jensen blasted wide from the edge of the box.
Brentford were facing United at home for the first time since 1947. Frank called on his players to create a “magic moment” at the Brentford Community Stadium.
Frank encouraged his troops to play with aggression and intensity, urged on by a boisterous home crowd, and the Bees came close to breaking the deadlock on 13 minutes when Bryan Mbeumo did well to feed the unmarked Jensen but David de Gea sprung to his left to save well with his feet.
The danger had not passed during a frenzied phase of play, with Victor Lindelof making the first of two blocks in quick succession – first he denied Vitaly Janelt before Alex Telles made a vital intervention to block Mads Sorensen’s shot from the resulting corner. United were penned in, and the pressure only eased after Christian Norgaard hooked Jensen’s pull-back over De Gea’s crossbar.
In contrast, United had plenty of possession but were ponderous with it, failing to test league debutant Jonas Lossl before Diogo Dalot’s speculative drive from distance swirled just wide. Brentford retained a threat on the counter and ought to have opened the scoring on 30 minutes.
Janelt’s long ball picked out Toney, who spotted the marauding run of Jensen once more off the shoulder of Lindelof but once again De Gea stood big to keep out his low shot with his left boot.
The interval arrived with Brentford having failed to make any of their chances count but having ran 4.5km more than United in the first half.
Rangnick appeared visibly unsettled by what he had witnessed, and while he resisted the temptation to make changes, there was a clear response from his players as Ronaldo’s header from Fernandes’ cross just minutes into the restart grazed the crossbar.
But United were showing more signs of life and would break the deadlock from their next attack. Fred was afforded too much time to time his cross for the onrushing Elanga, who darted in front of Mads Roerslev to control and finish with his second touch.
United were now in the mood and almost scored a quickfire second when Scott McTominay’s piledriver was fielded unconvincingly around the post by Lossl. It mattered not, as Greenwood was soon providing the insurance goal.
Ronaldo was instrumental as he chested the ball into the path of the onrushing Fernandes to dissect the entire Brentford defence. His countryman galloped into acres of vacated space before timing his pass to his right perfectly for Greenwood to accept the gift.
Frank sought to change things as he made three substitutions in quick succession but United duly extended their lead when McTominay sauntered through a couple of flimsy challenges to set Fernandes on his way once more, teeing up substitute Rashford for a precise finish into the roof of the net.
It was Rashford’s first goal since October, ending an 11-game barren run, and Rangnick immediately turned to a disconsolate Ronaldo – the man whom he replaced to explain the reasoning behind the alteration.
“It’s normal – he’s a striker who wants to score goals,” Rangnick said afterwards. “He has to bear in mind that we have another game in three days’ time. It was 2-0, the same score we had at Villa Park and I felt we had to defend the lead this time with three at the back.”
Brentford would take De Gea’s clean sheet away from him in untidy fashion as Fred failed to clear Sorensen’s long throw, allowing Toney to pounce with a simple finish from two yards out but it was scant consolation.
“It was one of those nights, fair play to David de Gea,” Frank added. “We get those chances again one will go in the back of the net. Our intensity killed them, we showed that in the first half. We played the Brentford way. It was a miracle they weren’t two goals down by half-time.
“He was by far the best Manchester United player today. Their first goal changed the momentum of the game. Of the three goals, the second is most disappointing and difficult to come back from. The way we smashed them in the first half was fantastic. I’m so proud of my team.”