Manchester United vs. Fulham: 6 Things We Learned

Paul Ansorge@@utdrantcastFeatured ColumnistFebruary 9, 2014

Manchester United vs. Fulham: 6 Things We Learned

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    Michael Regan/Getty Images

    After one of the most peculiar games of football in living memory, it is tricky to draw many rational conclusions from Manchester United's 2-2 draw to Fulham on Sunday.

    However, there certainly were, or at least should have been many learning points in those 90 minutes for David Moyes. Given that tactically it was a repeat of previous failures, it is entirely unclear whether he would agree. 

    Those of the viewpoint that Manchester United fans should all honour Sir Alex Ferguson's plea to stand by the new manager during his farewell in May and that in so honouring him should not offer a critical view may wish to look away now...

David Moyes Appears to Be Significantly out of His Tactical Depths

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    Jon Super/Associated Press

    There are mitigating circumstances to Manchester United's struggles this season. United's woes are not all David Moyes' fault.

    They have been well documented: David Gill's departure compounding the problems caused by Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement, the struggles in the summer, and midfield issues that have not been addressed for several seasons. It's a well-worn path of genuine reasons why Moyes' task is even more astronomical than it might have been.

    However...

    In the last two games, the residual hopes I have for David Moyes proving those of us who doubted his appointment wrong have taken something of a beating. 

    Of course, his job is not to convince his doubters, but that would be a happy byproduct of him getting the basics right. 

    United's tactics felt archaic in this game. They put a simply staggering number of crosses into the box. Eventually 18 of 81 crosses were deemed by Squawka.com to be "successful." Which means, of course, that Manchester United put 63 unsuccessful crosses into the box. 

    The maxim that "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" would appear to have some meaningful application here. Both in terms of United's pattern of play this season—and specifically during this game.  

    This was not a game in which the fact that key players let Moyes down was the ultimate reason for the inability to get three points at home against a side at the bottom of the league (although let him down they did).

    This was a game that was absolutely crying out for some more nuanced invention, and Moyes' tactics simply did not allow for it.

    Fulham barely tried to stop United crossing the ball in the first half. They just, with reasonable comfort, dealt with cross, after cross, after cross. United were very visibly playing away from their own strengths and into Fulham's. 

    That it finally paid off and the relentless percentage football approach led to two goals was not enough to justify the lack of variety. The punishment of Fulham's equaliser felt almost deserved, because there is more to football than hitting the flanks and knocking the ball into the box.

Rene Meulensteen Is a Brave Manager, but He Was Lucky Today

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    Jon Super/Associated Press

    Rene Meulensteen has endured an extremely inauspicious start to his Fulham career.

    With the previous criticism of Moyes' tactics taken into account, Meulensteen was extremely fortunate to see his side escape Old Trafford with a point.

    He was lucky that United didn't offer more variety and find a way to break down his stubborn defense, but he did see his team put in a defensive performance that any manager would be proud of. 

    The decision to start Muamer Tankovic up front was a bold one. The 18-year-old was replaced at half-time, but that may have been part of the plan all along. 

    Meulensteen also fully committed his side to parking the bus. He would have been absolutely delighted with how well the counterattacked when the bus left the station. 

Juan Mata Is Still Settling, but the Class Is Clear

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    "What have I signed up for?"
    "What have I signed up for?"Jon Super/Associated Press

    Juan Mata will make an enormous difference to Manchester United over the coming years. 

    This was not a game that played to his strengths. Whilst his Squawka pass map shows excellent ball retention, it is also clear that he is operating as part of an attacking philosophy that is predicated on getting the ball wide and putting in crosses.

    The almost complete lack of forward passes into the box was partly due to Fulham's very deep lying defense, but also serves as an excellent indicator (as if one were needed) that getting it out wide was the order of the day. 

Nemanja Vidic's Departure May Be Timely

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    "See you, Wazza" "Can I come too, mate?"
    "See you, Wazza" "Can I come too, mate?"Michael Regan/Getty Images

    Nemanja Vidic has had a wonderful career at Manchester United. 

    However, given his age (32) and injury profile, it is perhaps in everyone's best interests that he is leaving at the end of the season. 

    On Sunday he made a couple of towering headers, which managed to get the crowd going, but also had a significant degree of culpability in Steve Sidwell's goal. It is the kind of lapse in concentration that is more commonplace than it used to be. 

    United fans will almost universally appreciate the huge contribution he has made to the successes of the past few years, but many will also happily wish him well as he heads for pastures anew. 

Gary Neville Is Incredibly Reluctant to Criticise David Moyes

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    Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

    "This is nothing to do with the manager", said Gary Neville, co-commentator on Sky television.

    Neville has developed an excellent reputation as a pundit and tactical analyst. Popular with fans of all clubs, Neville has managed to steer away from his self-confessed "red" biases. 

    Thus it was odd to hear him espouse a view that seemed so at odds with the tactical realities of the game that was playing out. 

    It is hard to imagine another manager getting such an easy time from Neville. It is understandable given his personal connection with the club—and its coaching staff in particular—but it felt like an unfortunate moment nonetheless. 

     

Adnan Januzaj Made a Difference Yet Again

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    Michael Regan/Getty Images

    Adnan Januzaj's arrival into this game, called for in song by fans around the ground from almost the start of the second half, was the catalyst for United finally breaking down Fulham's stubborn defense. 

    Having been heavily critical of David Moyes, it is only fair for me to redress the balance somewhat with praise for his deployment of the youngster. 

    Given the mental and physical exertions of the Fulham defense (or "the entire Fulham team," given the 10-0-0 formation) it was sensible to unleash Januzaj late in the game when he could unsettle a tired defense. 

    He immediately began making things happen, and his personal crossing success percentage (according to Squawka) was significantly better than the team's as a whole. 

    Adnan Januzaj is a fine demonstration that Manchester United have some wonderful players. Fans everywhere are hoping that either David Moyes—or whoever comes next—can get the best out of them.