OPENING LINEUPS AND FORMATIONS
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson deployed his side in a 4-4-2ish shape. David de Gea was the goalkeeper while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans were the center-back pairing. Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband at left-back while Rafael was chosen at right-back over Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs roamed the center of the park while Paul Scholes was on the bench. Ashley Young was the left-winger and opposite of him on the right flank was Antonio Valencia. Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck were the striker pairing while Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) was on the bench.
Fulham manager Martin Jol went away from his recent attack minded 4-4-2 and instead deployed a 4-4-1-1 system at Old Trafford. Mark Schwarzer was the goalkeeper while Brede Hangeland wore the captain's armband at center-back. Aaron Hughes was the preferred partner for Hangeland over Phillippe Senderos. Stephen Kelly was the right-back while John Arne Riise was selected at left-back. In central-midfield, Mahamadou Diarra was the preferred partner over Danny Muprhy for Moussa Dembele. 18-year-old Kerim Frei was a surprise selection on the left flank and opposite of him was Damien Duff on the right flank. Pavel Pogrebnyak was the lone striker while Clint Dempsey was 'in the hole'.
Fulham defend deep
It was quite clear from the start what the pattern of this match would be: Fulham would defend deep and keep their lines compact, United would patiently work the ball from back to attack, and Fulham would still be trapped in their own half when they won the ball because they had no viable outlet in the attacking half of the pitch. This pretty much sums up the match and I could probably stop this tactical review right here. I'll keep rambling about specifics though...
Hughes and Hangeland actually had room to drop 3-5 yards deeper but they likely didn't so that they could stay compact with Diarra and Dembele. When Fulham lost possession, they were impressively haste to organize themselves into two banks of four with Dempsey tracking back as well and roaming near the midfield zone. The gap between Hughes/Hangeland and Diarra/Dembele was often only a few yards wide and United's right channel in attack was often clogged as well because Riise was defending narrowly and deep. Thus, the space was incredibly tight in the final third. Fergie had this to say after the match about the difficulty in breaking down a deep-defending and organized side:
"When you sit back, it doesn't matter if you've got 11 plumbers, joiners or footballers, it's hard to break down."
These tactics frustrated United but they also offered little hope for Fulham's own ability to create chances. As mentioned previously, when they won the ball from United, they generally had no viable outlet because they often had all 11 of their players in their own half. Pogrebnyak had the thankless task of playing the isolated center-forward role but he failed to successfully hold the ball up and bring others into an attacking transition. Evans simply bossed him. The most positive moments were when Dempsey was able to pick the ball up between the lines or when Dembele would dribble past a marker and provide a driving run (5 successful dribbles and 2 fouls won) -- if Fulham were going to score in the first hour of this match, this was always the most likely route. However, most of their attacking opportunities stumbled quickly as balls punted long for Progrebnyak usually resulted in the counterattack dying. The away side were trapped in their own half.
Jol's intent seemed obvious and it lacked ambition while it also relied on luck: soak up pressure, hope for the best while frustrating the opposition, and then try to nick a result at the end if his side hadn't conceded multiple goals by that point.
United lack a final ball -- but Paul Scholes' inclusion may have indirectly helped that
Space was tight for United's attackers but their off-the-ball movement often created attacking moves. As is typical, Rooney was continually dropping deep to pick up the ball from midfielders while Welbeck made intelligent diagonal runs. What often resulted was a center-back getting dragged out of position -- either too high or too far laterally -- and this opened up gaps for United to exploit. More specifically, it was Hughes often getting pulled out somewhere and because Kelly (at right-back) was generally playing higher than Riise (at left-back), that channel was often widened for a ball to be played in for Young or for when Evra or Giggs would surge forward. However, United's final ball from the likes of Welbeck, Giggs, and Rooney was consistently very poor on Monday night.
* The solid arrows indicate off-the-ball movement while the dotted arrows indicate possible through balls from Rooney, Welbeck, and Giggs.
Touch and passing range was certainly lacking from Rooney, Welbeck, and Giggs but as mentioned, the space to exploit was minimal due to the organization of Fulham's shape. Perhaps though, had Scholes been included in this match from the start, gaps in attack may have widened. Giggs selection over Scholes was a slight surprise, especially when considering the impressive form of the latter, but maybe it was done in an effort to involve the former since United now only have one match a week. Or maybe it was simply fitness management so that the legs of the 37-year-old Scholes and the 38-year-old Giggs could be looked after. Nonetheless, Scholes should've been chosen from the start for this match.
United's deep-lying players -- their back four and two central-midfielders -- had plenty of time and space on the ball due to Fulham sitting back. A patient build-up is the obvious thing to do but Giggs -- impatiently and erratically -- continued to look for an incisive ball behind the organized Fulham defense. Very few of these ambitious attempts were diagonal balls that United's attackers had a better chance of running onto. There simply wasn't much space for straight long balls as they were either gobbled up by the defenders or if they went through, the goalkeeper came off his line to collect the pass. Despite Giggs finishing with a 79% passing success rate, that number was often hovering below 70% for the first hour of the match -- a very disappointing number from a position where one is expected to be much more responsible with the ball. Thus, the away side were more than happy to not close down Giggs and let him aimlessly spray the ball.
Had Scholes started though, the situation may have been different. The midfield maestro likely would have read situations better and been more selective with ambitious long-balls. 'Sat-Nav' also provides more accuracy when deciding to send the ball long and the angle of his passes are more intelligent. He generally hits long diagonal balls to the touchline for the wingers to receive in or he hits them behind the opposition's full-backs. For the latter pass, there is space for a United attacker to run onto the ball and the goalkeeper can't come out to collect that pass.
A side does need 'can-openers' to break down a deep-defending side and United's were very poor versus Fulham. However, having a deep-lying playmaker dictate the match from deep can make the 'can-opener's' job easier. If that playmaker is picking the opposition apart from deep, then the deep-defending side has no choice but to close down the player spraying balls around -- or they risk continually being ripped apart. When they come out to close down this player, then space and gaps open up higher up the pitch for the attackers. This is what Scholes could've provided United's attack.
United emphasize width to begin 2nd half
To begin the 2nd half, there appeared to be an emphasis by United to swing the ball out wide for Valencia. Rooney began to drop even deeper and he noticeably looked toward the right touchline more when he received. Valencia did receive often near the right touchline, but he was also actively coming inside a few yards in order to make himself more available to receive. From here, he either had a go at his marker and he was complimented well by Rafael's surging runs forward. United's two right-side players worked well together and they collectively pinned back their counterparts. This is exemplified well by average positioning of the players involved on this flank: Valencia's was as high as United's strikers, Rafa's was in Fulham's half, Riise's was very narrow and deep, and Frei's was in his own half. The average positioning on the other side of the pitch was a bit more normal for those wide players.
United were frustrated in the 1st half trying to break Fulham down though the middle. With Fulham defending narrowly, particularly on their left side, it was likely an astute tactical emphasis from Fergie at half to tell his side to play with more width. Swinging the ball from side-to-side is also a standard way to patiently probe a structured side. This was done through Valencia and Rafael. United looked very lively to begin the 2nd half and during this stretch of play, a goal seemed most likely to come through this avenue. The two right-sided players combined for 15 cross attempts (5 were deemed 'successful') and 6 key passes (chances created).
Ferdinand and Evans have a very good understanding
This isn't really a tactical assessment but I still thought it's worth noting the solid partnership that has developed between Ferdinand and Evans. The two have a very good understanding as one always seems to anticipate well and get himself into intelligent positions while covering for the other. Generally it's Evans that comes out to challenge with Rio covering but even when the situation is reversed, the former always reads the situation well and is there to sweep. Perhaps it's somewhat telling that United's back four were terrific for the first 74 minutes but then looked shaky after Ferdinand was substituted off due to a knock at that time.
For the final half-hour of the match, Fulham came out higher as they were forced to chase the game since they were a goal down. At about the hour mark, their midfield line came out about 5-10 yards higher and they were more active in challenging their counterparts. After Murphy came on in the 72nd minute, Fulham's midfield line was playing 10-15 yards higher than they previously were. They were no longer inviting pressure and they were actively pressuring United. This is likely the scenario that Jol hoped for all along and the away side caused a number of scares late. Fergie thought he had an explanation for what occurred:
"The problem is when you play teams who sit in their half all game, they've always got something left and they had more than we had in the last 15 minutes. A little bit of tiredness came into our game and we started giving the ball away. They capitalised on that and had a lot of counter-attacks through it."
The United manager brought on Scholes for Rooney and this resulted in United's shape matching Fulham's 4-4-1-1 shape. This provided a bit more structure for United while it also provided calm in the center of the park versus the away side's increased later pressure. It could have gone smoother for United but the move generally worked.
Tactically, this game was a bore. Fulham's deep-defending ways set the pattern for this match and the away side showed little intent from the start. Although Fulham were unfortunate to have not received a penalty late, they were also fortunate to be in a situation to where could have nicked a result towards the end. Fulham were stuck in their own half while United bossed the ball -- but not the final ball. Credit should go to the visitors as well because they defended with discipline and they were brave. There were positives for United but this performance is one that could be classified as poor. Nonetheless, Fulham really didn't deserve much either and an ugly 1-0 victory for United feels deserving. 8 matches to go -- 22 more points clinches title number 20.