Fulham vs. Manchester United: 6 Things We Learned
David Moyes will leave Craven Cottage wondering what could have been after watching his team eviscerate Fulham in the opening 25 minutes of their Premier League clash.
An inspired spell of possession granted Manchester United a three goal lead by the 22 minutes mark, with Antonio Valencia, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney all hitting the back of the net in quick succession.
Injuries to Tom Cleverley and Rafael knocked the team out of their stride, however, with three substitutions made at half-time. Shinji Kagawa and Chris Smalling took their places in midfield and at right-back, respectively, with Marouane Fellaini coming on for Jonny Evans.
While bold, Moyes' changes were ultimately ineffective, with Kagawa largely anonymous, the team's attacking potency nullified by the loss of Rafael down the right and the inability of Fellaini to support the forward line.
Nevertheless, United had enough about them to carry their advantage through until full-time, even though Martin Jol's team were able to pull a goal back through Alexander Kacaniklic 65 minutes in.
With all this in mind, here's six things we learned from Fulham's home defeat to United.
1. The fluidity that floored Bayer Leverkusen looks to have returned to Moyes' team
United's 4-2 win over Leverkusen in the Champions League has arguably been their most consummate performance of the season so far, and a similar sense of free-roaming rampancy took hold of their first half performance against Fulham.
The effectiveness of United's attacking play in the opening 25 minutes came from a wonderful unleashing of each players' natural instincts and tendencies. Rooney dropped deep into midfield, van Persie found space between Fulham's lines, Evra and Rafael bombed forwards on the overlap and through the middle, and Januzaj and Valencia stretched the play and hit the channels as they saw fit.
Make no mistake, Fulham's defence was simply diabolical at times, but it was a testament to the fluency and understanding of United's attackers that they were able to respond to the home side's mistakes with such ruthlessness.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, United were always at their most dangerous when their players felt able to play with invention, trusting in the creativity and decision making of those around them. Whether it was the irresistible combinations of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez, Yorke, Cole, Giggs and co., or Cantona, Irwin and Sharpe, fluid attacking football has always been the ideal.
In fact, the expressive, free-roaming nature of Ferguson's very best United sides partly fed into the wrong-headed yet widely held belief that the prolific title-winner was a poor tactician. Vicente Del Bosque famously branded the Scot a "tactical anarchist" after Real Madrid's famous 3-2 win at Old Trafford in 2000, as recounted by Rob Smyth in The Guardian.
Rather than being incompetent, however, Ferguson merely believed in making the most of his players' initiative rather than demanding they submit to a strict and suffocating tactical system at all times.
Such faith didn't always pay off in terms of results or artistry, but if Moyes is planning to subvert his reputation as a builder of dour football teams by buying into his successor's belief in the imagination of his players, any worries over United's romance under his reign could well prove to be unfounded.
2. Januzaj's wing play makes Gareth Bale transfer talk sound even more fanciful
United may well have found a valid successor on the left to Ryan Giggs, and he isn't a Welshman.
Far-fetched rumours of a January move for Bale have begun to pile up across the transfer gossip columns, but in Januzaj, they have a player who not only boasts the skill and agility to dance down the left, but also the tenacity to scratch out chances when required.
His run through Scott Parker that led to United's second may well have been a foul, but it was also a heartening example of the youngster's gritty determination.
Again in the second half, he displayed his ability to give as good as he gets, as he drove the ball up field in a shoulder-to-shoulder sprint against Kieran Richardson from a failed Fulham corner. While some spectators may have expected Januzaj to be bullied off the ball by his more experienced opponent, the winger forced the former United youth product to concede a corner at the other end of the field.
Balance, touch and flair may well be remembered as the key qualities that made Giggs United's Welsh wizard on the wing, but it's often forgotten just how battle-ready and robust the wide man was in his heyday too.
Januzaj looks as though he has the strength and courage, as well as the skill, to be a fitting heir to the man in the No. 11 shirt.
3. Cleverley and Jones as a midfield two is a compromise, not a solution—much like United's other current combinations in the middle
The absence of an extra midfielder or two remains the most pressing issue for Moyes and his squad, who struggled more than they should have against a disjointed Fulham side.
Regardless of who the United manager starts in central midfield at present, the team ends up looking incomplete through the middle, with his only options offering compromises rather than solutions.
Compared to Carrick and Fellaini, Cleverley and Jones are more mobile and energetic, but as a pairing, their positioning is far too erratic and insecure, especially on the break.
Jones is not a natural midfielder by any means, and while his stamina and stomach for the big tackles may be admirable, the Englishman's touch and passing just aren't up to the standard required to play in midfield.
Cleverley is a decent player rather than a good or great one, and he should be a back-up for a club of United's stature, not a first-choice midfielder. He is unable to impose his will upon games and dictate possession, and he needs a senior partner such as Carrick to direct him in order to play at his best.
Together, neither player had the partner they needed to cover for their hyperactive attempts to close down and runs forwards.
Luckily for United's less than dynamic duo, Fulham's midfield played like a pair of headless Duracell bunnies in the first half. Had Martin Jol's team featured a player able to play a more considered and composed holding role, Cleverley and Jones' own impetuosity could have led to disaster.
As a pairing, Parker and Sidwell suffer exactly the same issues as Cleverley and Jones, leaving gaps throughout their team due to their shared lack of restraint when it comes to tackles and chasing down opponents.
Like United's starting midfield, they are too easily pulled of position, and they often cause their teammates more problems than they solve.
However, in the second half, with Fellaini and Kagawa coming on to replace Cleverley, Parker and Sidwell's overactive work rates began to cause problems for United's untried, untested and unfamiliar midfield. Jones' recklessness was particularly ineffective, while Kagawa looked out of the game as soon as he stepped onto the pitch.
Had he been available, the introduction of Carrick would have brought a useful degree of stability and self-control to the game at the expense of some drive and mobility in the centre. Yet, United shouldn't have to dial down the intensity and retreat in order to get a grip of a game.
Moyes must find at least one player who is mobile, strong in the tackle, confident and creative on the ball, and spirited enough to lead by example in order for his existing stock of midfielders to become useful parts of a puzzle rather than pieces of a jigsaw that can never be made whole.
4. Moyes and Jol face similar predicaments in midfield
Fulham also suffer from long-standing recruitment issues in midfield. The loss of Mousa Dembele to Tottenham Hotspur last summer hit the Cottagers hard, with the club unable to attract an adequate replacement.
The likes of Dimitar Berbatov, Adel Taarabt and Bryan Ruiz are hardly industrious players, and while Parker and Sidwell may be able to cover their lack of work ethic, Jol's talented team lacks the vital link-man to bring these two styles of player together in harmony.
While they may have lost 3-1 at home, and only regained ground in the second half due to a number of injuries and substitutions that disrupted United's rhythm, Fulham can rightfully feel that the final score is a rather harsh result considering their performance in other areas of the pitch.
Much will be made by how poor their defence was for United's goals, but had the Cottagers been able to rely on a better anchored midfield that could hold its shape and repel pressure through organisation and interceptions rather than foolishly keen physicality, they may have been able to punish the visitors.
A brief glance at the damage done to United in recent games against Southampton and West Bromwich Albion, and the chances Fulham spurned in the second half, underlines how unfortunate Jol is not to have a player able to keep his team composed in the middle.
Considering his team's current trajectory, however, the Dutchman may not be given the time or funds to fix Fulham's midfield deficiency.
5. Patrice Evra's qualities will not be easily replaced
Besides finding a new midfield general, United must also look to bring in a fresh face at left-back, with the future of Evra currently uncertain.
For all the talk of Leighton Baines' chance creation stats and excellent form of late, the Everton full-back is a very different prospect to the Frenchman, even if he is arguably the better player at present.
In the 25 minutes of glorious attacking football that handed United their trio of goals at Craven Cottage, Evra was at the heart of the free-flowing moves that punished and pulverised Fulham.
His bursts of acceleration allowed him to pounce on any space as it opened up, while his tricky dribbles gave him the flair to beat defenders in their own half, whether he was bombing on the overlap or cutting inside to supplement and support the midfield as a roaming attacking threat.
Baines is a brilliant traditional full-back, but he doesn't quite have the explosive qualities of Evra, regardless of his exquisite dead ball delivery and crossing.
If United want to replace their current left-back, they will have to look elsewhere, as Baines would require a wholesale change to how the team currently swarm forwards.
6. United are playing up to the media narrative following their 3-2 comeback against Stoke City
Moyes' team has now recorded back-to-back Premier League wins for the first time this season, building on their characterful response to Stoke in their last game at Old Trafford.
Following that game, the media were quick to suggest the 3-2 comeback would prove to be a major turning point, not just for United's season, but also Moyes' reign as manager.
So far, so good, and while the second half was far from routine for United, they were still able to see the game out with a largely improvised midfield of Jones, Fellaini and Kagawa.
The form of Rooney, van Persie and Januzaj was also promising, with their inter-play producing most of United's brightest moments throughout the match. Valencia, too, played well, even if he is yet to recapture his best form.
United's next game is in the Champions League against Real Sociedad in San Sebastian. A victory there would make it four wins on the trot—a run that began with a 1-0 home result in the two clubs' first meeting a fortnight ago.
There is still much for Moyes to do and improve upon before his team can be considered contenders, but if the current momentum can be maintained, a top four finish will be much more likely come May.
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