This game Monday night brought Fulham to Old Trafford, a place they haven’t scored a goal since 2006. In the away fixture, Manchester United beat Fulham at Craven Cottage 5-0, and Fulham had worries that this game would have a similar ending to it. Fulham has struggled all season on the road, with only 8 goals scored in the league. With Manchester City dropping points against Stoke City this past weekend, this was a chance for United to go 3 points up with only 8 games left.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1)-
Sir Alex Ferguson came out with a strong line-up, since United hadn’t played a game in 9 days. David De Gea came out in goal, with Anders Lindegaard still out injured. With his performances lately, it’s starting to look like De Gea will hold onto his position even after Lindegaard comes back from his injury. The young Spaniard has definitely benefitted from the long series of games, which seems to have calmed his nerves and he looks much better in goal when dealing with set pieces.
Sir Alex Ferguson kept Rafael at right-back, giving him his 3rd start in a row, and his 4th start in the last 5 games. He has looked extremely dangerous going forward, but he has been caught out of position defensively in a few games. While Athletic Bilbao was able to take advantage of the space left by some of his ill-timed forward runs, the mid-table teams in the Premier League have struggled to use this in their favor. United’s first-choice center-back pairing this year of Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans got the start. Rio Ferdinand has also had a good stretch of runs without any injury problems, helping to strengthen a back line that looks wobbly without him. The Frenchman Patrice Evra got another start at left-back, as well as the captain’s armband.
There were a couple changes in the midfield over the last game against Wolverhampton. Instead of going with Danny Welbeck on the left-wing, Ashley Young got the start. In the center, Michael Carrick started with Ryan Giggs in place of Paul Scholes who had a great game last week against Wolverhampton, only missing 2 passes out of 98. On the right-wing, Antonio Valencia got the start in hopes that he’d continue his blistering form that has terrorized league fullbacks for the best part of 4 months.
Up front, Danny Welbeck started while Javier Hernandez started on the bench after 2 goals last week. Wayne Rooney got the start behind Welbeck, with everybody hoping he’ll continue his run of form that has seen him score 7 goals in the past 6 games.
Martin Jol mixed up his squad a little bit from the teams that played the past 2 weeks, which included a 3-0 loss to Swansea and a 1-0 loss to Aston Villa. The Australian Mark Schwarzer got the start in goal, making his 22nd appearance of the season. Stephen Kelly got the start at right-back, which was an interesting choice since he has struggled defensively this year. Martin Jol decided to start Aaron Hughes next to their defensive stalwart, Brede Hangeland. For most of the season, the first choice center-backs have been Hangeland and Philippe Senderos, but Jol decided to gives Hughes the start and Senderos started on the bench. Wearing the captain’s armband at left-back was John Arne Riise. Hangeland and Riise have been the strength in Fulham’s defense, and have both gotten almost 30 appearances in the league this year. Unfortunately, Riise had a big task on the day to deal with an in-form Antonio Valencia.
Mahamadou Diarra started the game as the holding midfielder, charged with preventing Wayne Rooney from getting any space to operate in front of the defensive line. On the right wing, Damien Duff got the start while on the left wing, 18-year old Kerim Frei made his 3rd league start of the season, in place of Bryan Ruiz. In the center of the midfield, ahead of Diarra, was Moussa Dembele and perhaps Fulham’s most dangerous player, Clint Dempsey. Clint Dempsey has been having a great year for Fulham so far, with 12 goals and 4 assists in the league so far.
Martin Jol decided to play with a single striker up ahead, and he went with their Pavel Pogrebnyak, who has scored 5 goals in 5 games since coming over from VfB Stuttgart. While Pogrebnyak only got 1 goal in 14 games in the Bundesliga (and that was a penalty), since his arrival in England he has notched 5 goals in 5 shots, in 5 games.
Battle of the Wings-
Manchester United started the game off with a quick tempo, pressing on defense to deny Fulham any time or space to function in the midfield while also bringing players forward on the attack.
Manchester United was aggressive bringing players forward, including their fullbacks. A game like this serves a full-back like Rafael well, where his attacking prowess can be highlighted and his defense is rarely called upon. He had another advantage of playing on the right, with Antonio Valencia, who does a great job tracking back on defense. Rafael and Valencia on the attack caused problems all game for John Arne Riise, as they did a great job linking up together and stretching Fulham’s defense with Rafael’s overlapping runs.
Patrice Evra on the other side was equally dangerous. He made great attacking runs all game, and they got better as the game went along. His attacks and runs on the left side were so frequent that it would have been a reasonable mistake to think that he was playing left-wing today, not left-back. The left-back’s final pass let him down all game, as he was able to get into great positions and cause problems for Fulham’s defense, but when it came time for that final pass to create the goal, the quality just wasn’t there.
Patrice Evra’s best chance of the game came in the 31st minute, when Ryan Giggs out on the left side drove into the box and put in a ground cross that was deflected up into the air by Kelly. Evra, who was in the middle of the box near the penalty spot, tried a bicycle kick that went into the ground and just wide of the post.
Antonio Valencia has been the best winger in the league lately, and he showed again today just why that is. He used his pace to cause problems for Riise, while he continued a trend that he used last week against Wolverhampton to deadly effect. He’s been extremely dangerous when cutting inside, getting chances to press into the box while also giving Rafael room on his overlapping runs.
While Ashley Young and Patrice Evra performed well on the left side, United looked much more dangerous on the right side. Valencia showed how dangerous he can be when cutting the ball back inside. In the 29th minute, he brought the ball inside and played a one-two with Welbeck in the box that led to a decent shot that was blocked by Riise.
In the first 15 minutes of the game, Fulham played very deep with only Pogrebnyak venturing up the field. They had very little possession, and played a compact defense that United struggled to deal with close to the box.
Fulham played extremely narrow, with Frei and Duff making no notable impact on the game. Without any width to their attack, they weren’t able to take advantage of how far up the field Patrice Evra and Rafael were playing. In addition, with the wonderful forward attacks by Valencia and Young, Fulham’s fullbacks were pinned deep in defense. Without any width, they had to try and work through Michael Carrick, Jonny Evans, and Rio Ferdinand right in the middle of the pitch. Fulham’s lone striker had no real effect on the game as Rio Ferdinand made sure that he wasn’t on the end of any long balls.
Fulham on the Attack-
After the first 15 minutes of the game, Fulham made a couple of adjustments. They began pressing United on defense more, shutting down Giggs and Carrick quickly when they received the ball. At the same time, United relaxed their defensive pressure to give Fulham more time.
At the beginning of the game, Dembele played deep in the midfield near Diarra while Dempsey played alone ahead of them. After 15 minutes, Dembele played further up the field, near Dempsey, to apply more pressure on offense on Ryan Giggs, who has struggled on defense at times this year.
Fulham started to play the ball out wide, bringing Frei into the game and, to a lesser extent, Duff on the right side. This forced Rafael and Evra to stay back, which eased the pressure on Fulham’s defense. They had a couple good opportunities by Clint Dempsey, including a shot that forced David De Gea to make a leaping save to prevent the ball from curling in.
However, by the 25th minute, Fulham’s attack seemed to lose steam as United adjusted their play. Ryan Giggs started to press ahead in the midfield, which caused Moussa Dembele to drop back deep again next to Mahamadou Liarra, which left Dempsey with no assistance in getting around Carrick. In addition, they stopped playing the ball out wide.
Manchester United struggled all game long with sloppy passes, with Ryan Giggs and Danny Welbeck being the biggest offenders. The Red Devils really struggled in the final third against a densely packed Fulham defense, which made it difficult to capitalize on the large advantage that they had in possession.
Danny Welbeck didn’t look near as sharp as we’ve come to expect from him this year. His first-touch was poor through the entire game, and his passing frequently missed the mark. He gave away possession too easily, but he continued to put in good work on defense. He could be seen repeatedly chasing and harassing Fulham when they had the ball.
Unfortunately for Fulham, while their defense put in a great effort throughout the first half, just 3 minutes before the break, Manchester United was finally able to get a goal. The play started out with Ashley Young, who was given plenty of time on the ball as nobody from Fulham moved out to close him down. He launched in a rather easy diagonal cross that Hangeland badly mistimed his jump on. It went over him and caught both Rooney and Riise by surprise. The ball bounced off of Riise, and went to Jonny Evans alone at the far post. He pulled the ball back into the center for Rooney, who put into the top of the net as Schwarzer was left looking on from the ground near Evans.
Dealing with Fulham’s deep defense-
Fulham played deep in defense for almost the entire game, getting 10 players behind the ball on defense and stacking the box. It made it extremely difficult for United to breakdown their defense, and convert their large possession advantage into goals. Fulham played very good defense in the box once they were setup, but they struggled to deal with United during fast breaks and counter attacks.
With all of Fulham’s players defending so deep, United brought their players forward. Even Jonny Evans, in addition to a great day in defense, moved forward and participated in the attack. His passing was accurate, and it worked to apply even more pressure on a compact Fulham defense dealing with United attacks from every angle.
One of the best counter-attacking opportunities came for United just 2 minutes after half-time, when Valencia plays a one-two with Rooney before flicking the ball to Giggs, who plays a beautiful chipped ball in front of Valencia who had managed to get ahead of both Riise and Hangeland. Unfortunately, Schwarzer made a great save on a blistering shot and Riise cleared the rebound before Valencia could get to it.
United played a pressing defense for most of the game. Fulham struggled all game, as United pressed and didn’t give Fulham anytime on the ball. When United turned the ball over, they were very aggressive at immediately putting the ball carrier under heavy pressure in hopes of getting the ball back. This worked for United most of the game, as Ashley Young made 5 tackles and 2 interceptions and they were all in Fulham’s half of the field.
With Fulham playing so deep defensively, this meant that United’s midfield had time on the ball with no real challenge from Fulham. They were able to control possession, and pick out their passes with no one stepping out to rush them.
In the 63rd minute, Sir Alex Ferguson sent on Javier Hernandez to take the place of Danny Welbeck. With United controlling possession so effectively, United decided they wanted to cause more pressure on Fulham’s center-backs. While Welbeck works hard on defense, dropping back and chasing the player with the ball, Chicharito stays on the shoulder of the last defender trying to get in behind them on a quick counter-attack.
With no width to Fulham’s attack, controlling the midfield was important for Fulham. There were several changes during the game when Fulham tried to get the advantage, but Ferguson made changes to shut them down. To start, Fulham started with Diarra and Dembele playing deep in the center of the midfield, with Clint Dempsey ahead of them. This setup allowed Fulham to keep Wayne Rooney from getting any space to operate in front of the defense. But by playing that deep in midfield, it gave Ryan Giggs and especially Michael Carrick more time on the ball. With this time, he did a good job allowing United to dominate possession.
After 15 minutes, Moussa Dembele moved forward and played next to Clint Dempsey. This gave Fulham an attacking edge and this prevented Carrick and Giggs from having time on the ball. This, in addition to adding width to their attack, put United on the back foot and Fulham got a few good goal opportunities. It should be noted that their chances didn’t come from their striker, but from the midfield. This was a theme, as Fulham’s best attacks in the game came from forward runs out of their midfield.
By the 25th minute, Ryan Giggs started pressing further up the field. This pushed Dembele back near Diarra, and United was able to take control of the game back. With both midfielders deep again, they were effective throughout the game at denying Rooney any space to operate, as he was forced to drop deep into the midfield to receive passes.
Wayne Rooney did great all game dropping back in defense, and keeping Diarra from having any influence offensively. Ryan Giggs struggled at times dealing with Dembele, while Michael Carrick also had problems with Clint Dempsey. He was able to close him down for most of the game, but Dempsey did get a couple decent shots on goal that required De Gea to make a save.
The game changed when Fulham made a couple substitutions, bringing on Bryan Ruiz for Kerim Frei and Danny Murphy for Mahamadou Liarra. Bryan Ruiz replaced a largely ineffective Frei, who was never really able to make an impact on the game. With Ruiz on, Fulham had a better threat out wide and he played further up the field to help Pogrebnyak.
Murphy came on and took up Diarra’s spot, but added quite a bit offensively with his passing ability. Around the same time, Sir Alex Ferguson sent Paul Scholes on to take the place of Wayne Rooney.
When Paul Scholes came on, United switched from a 4-4-1-1 to a 4-5-1. Paul Scholes was brought on to control possession, and see out the last 10 minutes of the game with his sharp controlled passing. He played deep in the midfield with Michael Carrick, while Ryan Giggs played ahead of them. Carrick and Scholes did great for the rest of the game, keeping Dempsey quiet and limiting Dembele’s efforts. Unfortunately, Ryan Giggs sat back and didn’t step forward to apply pressure on Danny Murphy with the ball. This gave Murphy time to pick out his passes, and he played several long dangerous passes, twice trying to play the ball in behind United’s defense. His ability to pass from deep made Fulham a much more dangerous team to deal with for the last 10 minutes of the game.
Rio Ferdinand was subbed off on the 74th minute for Chris Smalling, after apparently having some slight back problems. With Fulham’s changes, and no Ferdinand at the back for United, it was shaping up to be a nerve-wracking final 15 minutes to the game.
Final 15 Minutes…-
United had another great opportunity on the fast break in the 75th minute, when Valencia put in a decent cross to the box that Ashley Young connected on with a screaming volley. Schwarzer was able to block it, but couldn’t control the rebound. Young pounced on the rebound, and it again bounced off of Schwarzer out to Ryan Giggs, who took the shot to get United a vital second goal. Unfortunately, Hangeland was able to block the ball and it was cleared from danger.
Fulham decided it was time to start pressing, and they got more aggressive on defense trying to press the ball carrier into a turnover. Manchester United got sloppy in the waning minutes of the match, as shown by a silly free-kick given away by Paul Scholes when he and Jonny Evans have Clint Dempsey pinned alone against the touchline. Instead of just containing him, Scholes put a poor tackle in and stepped on Dempsey’s ankle and gave away a free-kick 30 yards out from the net.
Fulham continued to threaten United with dangerous forward runs from the midfield. The most dangerous run of the game came in the 88th minute, with Danny Murphy making a forward run from the midfield. He received the ball from Bryan Ruiz and got on the wrong side of Michael Carrick. Just inside the penalty area, Carrick hit the outside of his foot, which knocked the ball away and Murphy went down. No penalty was given, despite the howls and protests of Fulham, and United should be counting themselves lucky that they got 3 points instead of 1.
This game definitely wasn’t the best performance by United this year. Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans put in another great performance at the back. Jonny Evans was the best player for United, as he and Ferdinand were able to completely negate Pogrebnyak from the game. After the Russian arrived in the EPL, he has managed to get 5 goals in 5 shots, in 5 games. But in this game, he didn’t get a shot off all game. He only got 41 touches, and his pass accuracy was less then 70%.
They controlled possession all game, but struggled in the final third to put the ball into the net. United suffered from sloppy passing all game, which stalled several different attacking runs throughout the entire game. Fulham played a very deep defense, which made it extremely difficult for United to finish their plays but it allowed United to control possession, and they applied no pressure on United’s deep central midfield, Michael Carrick. This was the responsibility of Clint Dempsey, and he failed to shut Carrick down all day.
Diarra did a good job for Fulham in front of the center-backs. Wayne Rooney had no real chances to operate with the ball in his favored position. Dembele looked good at times with some forward runs, but Fulham’s attack lacked any width. By starting Kerim Frei instead of Bryan Ruiz, all of their offense had to flow through Clint Dempsey who was effectively marked by Michael Carrick most of the game. Ryan Giggs struggled defensively on Dembele, who was able to make a few attacking runs from the midfield. With the defense Fulham was playing, United’s attack would probably have been better off with Paul Scholes playing in place of Ryan Giggs. Ryan Giggs struggled all game with poor passing, while Scholes has excelled this year when given time on the ball. His long diagonal balls perhaps would have given United a better chance of unlocking Fulham’s tight defense.
The wings were completely controlled by United. On the left side, Ashley Young and Patrice Evra ran wild on offense, while on the other side, Antonio Valencia and Rafael played well together and linked up several times to generate dangerous attacks. Both Damien Duff and Kerim Frei were largely unheard of for most of the game. United pressed ahead most of the game, and pinned Fulham back deep. United’s fullback spent most of the game in Fulham’s half of the field, while Fulham’s fullbacks and wingers had no effect all game. It wasn’t until Bryan Ruiz came in for Fulham that they finally got some width to their attack, and he also helped Pogrebnyak threaten forward.
United grinded out a win the hard way. They had plenty of possession, but were denied goals due to some good tight defense by Fulham, and some poor passing and finishing. This game could have had a much different ending for United, had Michael Oliver given the penalty to Murphy in the 88th minute. Sir Alex Ferguson has talked about complacency, and this game was perhaps another example of it. With all that said, with only 8 games left in the season, United have a 3 point lead over Manchester City and the Red Devils are getting more people back healthy every week. Unfortunately, if United plays more games like this, eventually, they will drop points.
By: Joe_Hammer (@RangeRooney)
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