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The Tactics Board- MUFC 3-2 Fulham: A Tale of Two Halves

Manchester United recovered from an opening day loss to Everton with a 3-2 win over visiting Fulham. Sir Alex Ferguson made changes after the disappointing first game, including dropping Wayne Rooney to the bench, while Van Persie gets his first club start. Meanwhile, Fulham came into the game after beating Norwich City 5-0 to open the season. An impressive performance, especially considering one of the club’s best player, Clint Dempsey, has been missing while trying to push through a transfer.

After giving up an early goal, United’s attack looked impressive. They moved the ball around the pitch quickly, linking up with smart runs off the ball by the players up front. United looked in control of the game until Moussa Dembele started to use his size and strength to out muscle the Red Devils in the midfield. This performance, and a sloppy goalkeeping error that resulted in an own goal made the end of this game more stressful than it should have been for Manchester United.

Manchester United vs Fulham

Old Trafford – August 25th, 2012

Game Setup-

Manchester United Line-Up-
After an extremely lax performance against Everton last week, Sir Alex Ferguson made 5 changes from the team that confronted Everton. In addition to personnel changes, they also changed from the 4-3-3 (4-2-1-3) they played against Everton to a more familiar 4-4-1-1.

After some quality saves against Everton, David De Gea got the start again in the net. Ahead of him at center-back, captain Nemanja Vidic started alongside Michael Carrick, who was forced to play defense again due to a rash of defensive injuries. Fortunately for United, Jonny Evans was healthy enough to be on the bench for this game and should be available against Southampton. At full-back, Patrice Evra got the start on the left side while Rafael replaced Antonio Valencia at right-back.

Moving up into the midfield, Tom Cleverley retained his spot and started alongside Anderson, while Paul Scholes started on the bench. Ashley Young started at left wing, while Antonio Valencia moved from right-back to his more preferred right-wing slot. Shinji Kagawa started again in the ‘number 10 / trequartista’ slot, just behind Robin Van Persie at lone striker.

Manchester United Tactics(4-4-1-1)-
In the 4-4-1-1, Manchester United made several tactical changes compared to the Everton game. Van Persie started alone up front, operating in the penalty area trying to find space in a dangerous location. The most important role in this formation was the ‘number 10’ playmaker, filled by Shinji Kagawa. He tried to function between Fulham’s defensive and midfield line, moving laterally in an attempt to find space to receive the ball, while trying to open up Fulham’s defense. Without possession, both Kagawa and Van Persie press up the field and try to close down Fulham’s back line and force a turnover.

The attack up front was supported by Ashley Young on the left wing, and Antonio Valencia on the right. Ashley Young attempts to cut inside, trying to link-up and play with Kagawa and Van Persie. On the right side, Valencia prefers to stay near the touchline and deliver crosses into the box.

Cleverley and Anderson played fairly deep, helping to control possession and move the ball quickly from side to side. Additionally, they would make late runs into the box to provide an extra threat. They also put in a good defensive performance, shielding in front of the center-backs.

Evra at left-back was needed to consistently get forward on the attack to provide width to the Red Devils attack since Ashley Young was cutting inside. On the right side, with Valencia staying near the touchline, Rafael was frequently used to drive into the channel between Fulham’s center-back and left-back. They need to ensure that counter-attacks aren’t able to get behind them and attack the Red Devils from out wide.

Fulham Line-Up-
Martin Jol made no changes from the team that was able to so effectively rout the visiting Canaries. The Cottagers came out in a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Mark Schwarzer starting in goal. The defensive line consisted of Sascha Riether at right-back, Matthew Briggs at left-back, and Aaron Hughes and team captain Brede Hangeland as center-backs.

In the midfield, Mahamadou Diarra started as the defensive central midfielder alongside the more attacking Moussa Dembele. Damien Duff started at right wing, with newly acquired Alexander Kacaniklic started at left wing. Mladen Petric started as the lone striker, with Bryan Ruiz starting deeper to support him.

Fulham Tactics(4-4-1-1)-
Fulham’s 4-4-1-1 formation plays very narrow, and relies heavily on Moussa Dembele to fuel their attack. Mahamadou Diarra plays as a strictly defensive midfielder, offering very little offensively. Moussa Dembele is the engine of Fulham’s attack, using his strength and skills to cause openings in opposition’s defense. Bryan Ruiz is often forced to drop fairly deep to play with Dembele, as Diarra tends to stay extremely deep and isn’t an available outlet for Dembele. If Ruiz is forced to play too deep, Mladen Petric up front gets very little service and can disappear from the game.

The left winger, Damien Duff, frequently cuts inside to try and support Petric up front, while Kacaniklic tends to play much wider, using his pace to run at full backs and then delivering low crosses in front of the net. The full-backs were unable to provide much assistance going forward, as they were pinned back fairly deep by United’s wingers.

Key Points-

  • Manchester United starts slow, and allows another set piece goal
  • Rooney demoted to bench while Van Persie gets first start.
  • Kagawa puts in an impressive performance in the ‘number 10’ role behind Van Persie
  • Red Devils attack looks strong in the first half, with standout performances by Cleverley and Rafael
  • Fulham fights back in the second half, with Moussa Dembele imposing his will in the central midfield.
  • Error from David De Gea on an easy cross results in an own goal, giving Fulham a second goal and making for a very nervy final 15 minutes
  • Red Devils struggle to finish game off, and Rooney gets injured in stoppage time


Set Pieces and Attacking Fullbacks

Manchester United started the game sluggishly, and Fulham was able to make them pay quickly. While struggling early in the game, Manchester United again allowed a set piece goal, this time within the first 3 minutes. Michael Carrick committed a foul right on the edge of the 18-yard box that set up a free kick. Bryan Ruiz played a simple square pass into the box for Damien Duff, who was left unmarked after Ashley Young fell to the ground. With no pressure, Duff was easily able to slot the ball home past the Red Devils defense.

Going down 1-0 inside the first 3 minutes was not the start the Red Devils were looking for. After a disappointing performance against Everton, Sir Alex Ferguson opted for a 4-4-1-1, instead of the 4-3-3 they used against Everton. Van Persie got the start alone up front, with Rooney dropped to the bench after looking slow and unfit. Van Persie struggled up front, as Fulham did well to prevent him from having any space to operate inside the box. He only managed one shot on goal, and in the second half he was forced to drop into the midfield to get on the ball.

10' Goal - Robin Van Persie

Even though Van Persie struggled to find space up front, his movement required the attention of both Fulham center-backs and this created openings for deeper United players. On United’s left wing was Ashley Young, who was looking to cut inside to link-up with Kagawa and Van Persie. Young struggled at times to get on the ball, as Damien Duff covered him well. With Ashley Young cutting inside from the left, it was left to Patrice Evra to get forward and provide the width to the Red Devils attack. He looked sharp during the game on his attacking runs. He was sharp on the ball and delivered quality passes and crosses.

In the 10th minute, Manchester United finally came to life and was able to tie the game due to Evra’s attacking instincts. Anderson played a ball out wide to Evra, who Fulham full-back Sascha Riether was slow to shut down. Evra was able to bounce a cross towards the top of the penalty box for Robin Van Persie, who did a good job of finding an open area, and the Dutch striker made a difficult shot look easy as he volleyed the cross into the net.

Fulham struggled to deal with Manchester United’s marauding full-backs. When Ashley Young cut inside from the left, Damien Duff frequently marked him and followed. This left Riether to mark Evra, but he was positioned so deep that Evra was consistently able to receive the ball with little pressure and plenty of time. On the other side of the pitch, Antonio Valencia played as a more traditional winger and stayed near the touchline. He stayed wide, and Fulham’s right-back, Matthew Briggs, struggled to deal with his pace and the Ecuadorian winger was able to run at him and beat him to the byline before delivering a cross into the box. Valencia and Evra were frequently able to get into position to deliver crosses, but Valencia only completed 2 out of 15 crosses while Evra was only successful on 1 out of 5.

Midfield Setup-

With both teams playing roughly the same formation, a 4-4-1-1, they both ended up with 3 players in the middle of the pitch, but how they used them offensively and defensively was very different. Deep in Fulham’s midfield was Moussa Dembele, who functioned as a box-to-box midfielder with strong contributions on both sides of the pitch. Mahamadou Diarra started alongside of Dembele, but he functioned almost entirely as a defensive midfielder. He had very little effect on the game offensively, as he stayed extremely deep and was only used to help recycle possession and play the ball off to Dembele or Ruiz. Bryan Ruiz played ahead of the midfielders, serving as the link between the midfield and Petric. For large parts of the first half he was unable to make any impact.

Manchester United had a different set of midfielders, with Tom Cleverley and Anderson starting in the middle of the pitch. Both Cleverley and Anderson functioned as box-to-box midfielders, with Tom Cleverley playing as a passing midfielder and Anderson played as the ‘destroyer’ midfielder. They started in the 2 deeper central midfield positions, and their play looked sharp enough to bring up memories of their starts early last season. Tom Cleverley looked much better playing in a deeper role than he did last year. He is smart with the ball, with good vision and short quick passes that helped United move the ball around the pitch quickly. Much like Kagawa, many of his passes were one-touch and Fulham’s defense struggled. Next to him, Anderson had an effective game. He stayed fairly deep for most of the game, frequently playing long balls to switch the point of attack from touchline to touchline. During prolonged periods of possession, they would often play as a double pivot with one of them making late runs into the box in an attempt to overload Fulham’s defense.

Playing ahead of the central midfielders, behind the lone striker, Shinji Kagawa had another excellent game. He tried to play between Fulham’s lines, using constant movement to trouble Fulham’s defense. He has the speed and skill to find small gaps of space near the 18-yard box, and the confidence to receive the ball and play passes to split the defense.

Fulham Defense vs United Offense

After struggling during the first 5 minutes, Manchester United started to take control of the game and Fulham was forced to defend deeper. They fell back into 2 banks of 4, and tried to play a tight defense that would be hard for the Red Devils to break down.

Manchester United’s offense looked much better than it did against Everton. United moved the ball around the pitch quickly, often switching the ball from flank to flank and catching Fulham out of position. When United had the ball out wide, Cleverley and Kagawa did a good job of positioning themselves near the corner of the 18-yard box to receive passes and create overloads. From the wing, the pass was frequently played to Cleverley or Kagawa and they would then play a quick pass to Anderson who was able to play a long ball to the other wing. Fulham struggled to keep up with the pace of the movements, and United was frequently able to play into gaps caused by the quick transitions.

In the middle of the pitch, Fulham coach Martin Jol played Dembele and Diarra in front of the center backs in an effort to shield them, as they dealt with Robin Van Persie. With both of the midfielders there, Shinji Kagawa struggled to find space in the middle of the pitch to play into. Struggling for space in the middle, Kagawa would frequently play out wide and Fulham’s central midfielders were reluctant to follow him. This would lead to overloads, and Kagawa’s accurate passing and quick movement caused problems for the Cottagers.

Bryan Ruiz struggled defensively for Fulham, as he was frequently left trying to deal with both Cleverley and Anderson. With Ruiz trying to pressure both United midfielders alone, Cleverley and Anderson were often able to have plenty of time and space on the ball with almost no pressure.

As the first half went on, Fulham struggled to deal with United’s attack as they took more control of the game. Fulham was getting pinned back deep, and anytime they recovered the ball they struggled to get it out and would frequently end up turning it back over. Fulham’s most successful efforts to get the ball up field involved passing it to Dembele, and allowing him to run the ball up the field. He frequently had runs of 30-50 yards that United struggled to shut down.

The wide players for Fulham struggled throughout the game to deal with the overloads, and pace, of United’s attack and this resulted in them being pinned back deep through most of the game. They were unable to have much effect on the game offensively, and as a result Fulham’s attack ended up being increasingly narrow with no play out wide.

Fulham overloaded

As the first half wore on, the game turned more in United’s favor. The Red Devils looked dangerous on the attack, and it seemed to be only a matter of time before they would take the lead. In the 35th minute, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side finally took the lead. Van Persie played a corner in, which Diarra was able to head towards the top of the box. The ball dropped for Cleverley, who played a strong low shot that Schwarzer was able to stop, but not hold onto. The rebound dropped right to Kagawa, who was able to easily tap it in after being played onside by Riether’s delay coming off the far post.

With the second goal, Manchester United’s attack turned up a gear. In a quick counter-attack Valencia played a slick pass forward to Rafael. Rafael slid the ball left for Kagawa near the penalty spot, and he shifted left before taking a shot that bounced off the goalpost. The rebound came to Ashley Young, whose shot bounced off of Schwarzer and over to Rafael who easily tapped it in, but the goal was rightly called offside.

Fullback Attacks (Yellow)

Less than 3 minutes later, United went up 3-1. It started with Van Persie playing a short corner to Valencia. Valencia played it centrally for Rafael, who played it back wide for Valencia. The right winger then lobbed a cross towards the far post, where Hughes beat Vidic to the ball but it got no further than Young. Young then lobbed a cross back across the goal mouth where Rafael was able to meet it and drive it into the goal.

Fulham regroups and United struggles

With a 3-1 lead, it looked as though Manchester United might score several more. The beginning of the second half started much as the first half ended, but then the Red Devils started to struggle. As United looked in control, Anderson started to make more frequent forward runs on the attack. While some of his runs looked dangerous, more frequently his runs were poorly timed and left United’s defense in poor shape when Fulham regained possession. Moussa Dembele was able to take advantage of Anderson’s absence, using his strength to run at a United’s defense that struggled to deal with him.

Fulham was very dependent on Dembele. Offensively, he had 9 successful dribbles, out of 11 attempts. Defensively, 7 out of 8 tackles. He played as an ideal box to box midfielder. Cleverley and Anderson sat deep on defense, covering directly in front of the center-backs. Cleverley had an excellent game defensively, while Anderson also was able to make a strong contribution. Their coverage caused Bryan Ruiz to drop deeper into the midfield to receive the ball, and this left Mladen Petric alone up front with very little service. He struggled to have any impact on the game with only 5 touches in the second half.

Robin Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa were effective pressing up the field, ensuring that Fulham’s back line had very little time on the ball. In addition, Kagawa was responsible for marking Diarra, but he poised very little threat and Kagawa had no problem dealing with him. The biggest problem United had was dealing with Moussa Dembele, as he wasn’t afraid to take the ball and run at United’s defense. With his power and tenacity, he caused problems for United’s midfield. His runs were extremely dangerous, but the converted striker struggled at times to spot an opening and play the appropriate pass.

In the 62nd minute, Martin Jol sent Steve Sidwell on to replace Alexander Kacaniklic. This change meant that Bryan Ruiz moved to right-wing, Damien Duff switched sides to left-wing. Sidwell played alongside Diarra in the central midfield, and Moussa Dembele slotted in behind the striker.

On the 64th minute, this game took a dramatic twist. Down 3-1, Fulham scored a second goal. The goal came on a disastrous mistake by David De Gea. The ball was played ahead, wide on the left side for Matthew Briggs. He played a cross into the box for Petric, who was closely marked by Nemanja Vidic. David De Gea came out to deal with the cross, but was bumped out of position by Petric, and the cross came in untouched until it deflected off Vidic’s foot for an own goal.

Nervous Finish

Vidic’s own goal seemed to reinvigorate Fulham, and they started to control the ball more and have more of an edge to their attack. At the same time, the Red Devils most dangerous player was taken off. In the 68th minute, Danny Welbeck came on for Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney came on for Shinji Kagawa.

Danny Welbeck took up Young’s position at left wing, while Rooney took over the playmaker role behind Robin Van Persie.

Fulham’s attack looked much more dangerous with Dembele in a more forward position. Fulham had considerably more success holding onto the ball, though they struggled to get it into the box and this frequently left them taking shots from outside the penalty box, such as Dembele’s blistering shot that De Gea deflected over the crossbar in the 69th minute. At the 70th minute, United controlled possession 65% to 35%. In the final 20 minutes, the possession was nearly evenly split.

With Welbeck and Rooney, Manchester United switched to the 4-2-1-3 that they used against Everton. Rooney played as the trequartista, with Van Persie as the central striker. The left forward was Danny Welbeck, and the right forward was Antonio Valencia. Unfortunately, there was very little opportunity to see this formation as Fulham dominated most of the final 15 minutes. When they got on the attack, they looked dangerous with plenty of players operating around the box. Valencia stayed out wide, so there wasn’t the congestion in the middle. The late arriving runs of Rafael, and Cleverley, created some good scoring opportunities.


Manchester United was able to hold on and take the three points from this game, but the ending was far closer than it should have been. Again, the Red Devils struggled to deal with a physical midfielder. Van Persie and Kagawa linked up well, and should have a chance to develop a good relationship in the next 4 weeks until Wayne Rooney comes back. In addition, Tom Cleverley looked sharp in the midfield, and he put in an impressive effort on both ends of the pitch. Rafael looked very dangerous going forward, but he still had a couple defensive lapses when dealing with Alexander Kacaniklic.

Next comes Southampton, and United seems like they should be getting some of their injured defenders back. This should allow Michael Carrick to return to the midfield, perhaps alongside Tom Cleverley. While Wayne Rooney’s injury should give Van Persie and Kagawa a good chance to gel, it denies them all the chance to play together and work out a good understanding. Overall, some good performances from the Red Devils but they need to eliminate the mistakes.

By RangeRooney

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