Craven Cottage has been a difficult ground for Manchester United through the years, with only 1 point from 9 during the Reds’ last three visits there. If that is not bad enough, United had conceded 7 goals from those three games, which is painful reading for a team that puts a lot of emphasis on being solid in defence. But Wednesday’s game was a joyful occasion for every red, with United scoring five and keeping only their second clean sheet at the ground since Fulham joined the Premier League in 2001. Welbeck, Nani, Giggs, Rooney and Berbatov all got their name on the scoresheet, making it the second time this season that five different United players have found the net in the same match. The Red Devils now stand only 2 points behind leaders City at Christmas.
What is even more pleasing for United fans is the football on show, with chances and goals arriving at will. What has happened to United? Following 8 games where United managed to find the net only once per game, they have now scored 11 in 3, and it could easily have been more. Why the sudden change?
First off, a word must be said about Phil Jones. In an age where players stay down as if they had lost a leg after the slightest of contacts, here is a lad that keeps on playing despite having a severe concussion and a possible fractured cheekbone, putting in a decisive tackle when the team needs him most. The former Blackburn defender has done more than what could be asked from him this season, playing brilliantly whether he is a central defender, a right-back, or in midfield. His warrior like personality resembles the likes of Roy Keane or Bryan Robson, and he showed it yet again against Fulham. After getting hammered by an elbow to the jaw he kept on playing for 10 minutes, although there were signs that he could not stay on. He chose not to go for headers and looked groggy, but his passion was still there. If the rumored 6 weeks out are true it will be a big blow to us, but hopefully he will be back soon. It is Phil Jones after all…
Despite the early injury to Phil Jones, it did not seem to affect United. 3-0 up at half time, and it could easily have been more. Welbeck should have had a penalty following a kick from Senderos inside his own box, while Ryan Giggs could have had himself a goal earlier in the game had he been a little quicker to get on the end of Phil Jones’ brilliant cross. There were three men who dominated this game for United though, and those were Nani, Giggs and Valencia. Nani got himself a goal and two assists, Giggs the same, while Valencia picked up his 5th assist in 3 games when Berbatov finished brilliantly with a cheeky back-heel in the last minutes. What’s even more impressive is the fact that those three not only got the assists and goals, but the assists to the assistants. Valencia gave the ball to Giggsy for Nani’s goal, and made the pass to Nani who put through Giggsy for his strike. For the last goal, it was Nani who put through Valencia, and those three had a stormer. It is interesting to see the way United play these days, doubling up on the wings every time they attack. We saw against QPR how Nani and Valencia would be on the right wing at the same time, while Welbeck and Nani doubled up on the left. Fulham made it easy for us though. Playing with Ruiz and Dempsey in wide areas you will not get them tracking back, putting us two against one every time. This makes in hard for their central defenders, who have to help out their fullbacks instead of focusing on their main duties of marking Welbeck and Rooney.
Ashley Young made it a whole lot easier for United. Valencia has done brilliantly for United lately, but he never vacates his spot on the right wing. Having Young and Nani on the wings makes United more flexible, and we often saw Young on the right together with Nani and Valencia, or the Portuguese on the left with Giggsy and Ashley. Fulham could not handle it, and it was no surprise that four of our five goals came from crosses. Whenever Giggs plays, we will see a weakened United centrally, but width is strengthened. For a central midfielder, he spends and awful lot of time on the wings. He put in several crosses, and seems to relish this position as he gets to play on both wings without getting too far away from his original position. The total football United play at the moment is admirable, with all the 5 forward players being everywhere and taking up each others positions. It makes our play flow better, and when oppositions do not manage to pick it up they get severely punished.
Giggsy’s movement makes it difficult for Carrick though, who had one of his worst games so far this season. His passing seemed off, and he often found himself one against three. Luckily we were not punished for it, with Lindegaard keeping out everything thrown at him. The defence seemed off with Fulham creating lots of chances, especially in the second half. You could argue that United put their foot off the gas, but it looked more like a tactical change from Fulham. During the first half they tried to get through wide without effect, but switching Ruiz and Dempsey more centrally helped them. All their chances came from central areas, trying to play through United. Despite Giggsy giving United an edge wide, he still needs to work on his central defensive duties. Jones and Carrick have done this well, not letting oppositions get a sniff central in the park, but without our young Englishman in the centre of the park we looked vulnerable. This, coupled with Evans’ inability to mark his man, put our Dane up to many tests that he passed with flying colors. United’s defensive play is based on forcing oppositions wide, and Evans had done well in that respect getting his head to every ball swung in. With Giggsy though, this did not work, and it is incredible that Fulham did not manage to score on at least one of their chances.
Attacking wise, the second half performance seemed to suffer from the injury given to Young. Park, for all his craft, stayed on his left wing too often leaving Nani isolated on the right. Nani moved more central and could have had yet another assist had Welbeck kept his nerve alone with Stockdale. As soon as Valencia started to overlap it became easier for our Portuguese winger as he got more options, and he found the freedom to roam that he had in the first half. United managed to double up on their right side, and every attack that came through in the second half came from this area of the pitch.
The partnership of Rooney and Welbeck has blossomed lately, and it resulted in goals for both our strikers at Craven Cottage. Despite Chicharito giving us a big goal threat, he does not add half as much to the team as what Danny does. When paired with Rooney, we see both strikers meet and move around, play passes and take shots. Whenever Rooney plays with Chicharito he looks too much of a midfielder, but he gets freedom to use more time in the opposition penalty area as Welbeck can drop deep and build up play. Our young striker could have had a hat-trick against Fulham, but again his killer touch lacked on the majority of his efforts. He took his goal well, but he needs to get calmer in front of goal. His ability to get out wide helps our play, and he had a brilliant game. Rooney though, did not perform up to his usual standard. Many passes went wayward, and only having one shot during the whole game before smashing it in from 30 yards late in the game. It was expected of Rooney to get on the scoresheet again following his goals against QPR and Wolves, but no one could have expected it to have been such a belter. This was the Rooney we all were used to see, smashing balls in instead of chipping or placing. He has now scored 6 goals outside the area this season, and this one was by far his best. He did not have his best game, but his commitment to the team remained. There was once in the second half where he took up the right back position following some great attacking play by Nani and Valencia, and this brand of total football is exactly what makes United so dangerous these days.
Patrice Evra once again showed his weakness in one-on-one situations, and these are worrying signs for every United fan. Nani and Valencia worked well on right side with both tracking back and attacking, and Evra looked solid as long as Young was on the pitch. As soon as Ashley went off Fulham started to go at Evra, and got to multiple one-on-one challenges, getting past him every time. You can see Park is still short of match fitness, as one of his biggest strengths is tracking back. He left Evra alone too many times, and it nearly resulted in a couple of Fulham goals. However, you cannot expect a first-choice defender on Manchester United to rely on help from others in one-on-one situations. He times his tackles badly, and does not seem to know where to force oppositions. As soon as he tries to get them wide, they turn inside easily. Both Ruiz and Mackie have done it this week, and with all due respect, none of them are Lionel Messi. Maybe he needs a rest, but Sir Alex should address this problem pretty quickly.