Better late than never? Okay good... the holidays are a busy time for everyone -- myself included -- so that is my excuse for presenting this tactical review of last week's Fulham match just now. I've made it a goal to provide tactical analysis for each and every match this season so here you go -- but in a format that is inspired by the post-match quotes from the managers and players.
Opening Lineups and Formations
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson deployed his side in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1ish shape. Anders Lindegaard was chosen in goal over David de Gea while Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling were the center-back pairing. Patrice Evra was at left-back with the captain's armband and Phil Jones started at right-back. Antonio Valencia began the match as a right-winger but he was moved back to right-back when Jones was substituted off during the 20th minute due to injury. Nani started the match on the left flank in attack but switched sides when Young came on to play on the left flank. Ryan Giggs partnered Michael Carrick in the center of the park with the latter positioned more conservatively. Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck were the pairing up front.
Fulham manager Martin Jol played his side in a similar 4-4-1-1 shape. David Stockdale deputised for the injured Mark Schwarzer in goal. Brede Hangeland and Philippe Senderos were the center-back duo and they were flanked in defense by Chris Baird at right-back and John Arne Riise at left-back. In midfield, Dickson Etuhu and Danny Murphy formed a partnership in the center while Clint Dempsey played a narrow left-sided role and Bryan Ruiz played a narrowly on the right. Up top. Andy Johnson was the lead striker while Moussa Dembele played withdrawn from him.
"We were very patient with the ball in the early part of the match. We worked our way through the Fulham midfield and it was a great cutback for Danny to score his goal. He took it well. Good starts are really important in games like this and it gave us control until half-time" - Ferguson
In the previous match versus Queens Park Rangers -- despite playing very well during their 2-0 victory at Loftus Road -- Fergie's side was a bit loose with their passing. United dominated possession but they only completed their passes at a 76% success rate. Perhaps QPR's own sloppiness with their distribution (72% success rate) attributed to the tone that was set for that game. United's season average from 18 league matches is 83.9%.
So perhaps then, Fergie wanted to gain control of this match at Craven Cottage -- a venue where United had only taken a single point from their last possible 9 -- by patiently building the attack from the back with patience and tidy distribution. Lindegaard did well to quickly find his defenders for a simple pass but in the situations when Fulham closed down the United defenders and prevented them from safely receiving, the Dane did well to spray the ball around. In recent matches, United's goalkeeper -- whether it be Lindegaard or de Gea -- has looked to distribute to the right-back -- whether that be Smalling, Jones, or Valencia -- as each may have been targeted for being strong in aerial duels. Well, Smalling and Jones at least.
From the start, it was quite evident that United's defenders were content with pinging the ball around the back until the right opening in midfield occurred. Prior to Welbeck's opening goal in the 5th minute, Fulham hardly had even a sniff of the ball while the likes of Evra, Evans, Smalling, and Carrick (as a deep-lying pivot) simply knocked the ball around. When Nani came deep to receive near the left touchline, he simply turned dribbled 50 yards past Ruiz and Baird and then played a delicious left-footed cross for Welbeck to finish. Perhaps United's patient passing caused Fulham to lose concentration for a split second and it left the home side vulnerable for Nani's penetrating run?
The three United defenders that played the entire match had tremendous passing statistics from the match -- Evans (54/58 passing | 93%), Smalling (50/56 passing | 89%), Evra (53/56 passing | 95%) -- as did the deep-lying Carrick (66/74 passing | 89%). This was certainly enhanced by numerous square passes but that likely was the point: being patient with the ball and finding the appropriate opening in midfield so that ball could be worked into attack.
"For myself and Michael Carrick in midfield, the movement in front of us was brilliant. Obviously the defending was good as well. But when you have so many options on the ball – people running in behind, people dropping in the hole – we’re a very difficult team to play." - Giggs
Both Carrick and Giggs were brilliant and they completely outclassed their counterparts -- Murphy and Etuhu. Carrick was the main pivot from defense into midfield and it was he who did well to dictate this match. His 89 touches on the ball was unmatched. Giggs also came deep for the ball at times but in general, he was higher up the pitch and looking to ignite the attack. In many ways, Giggsy's quote tells it all.
United's attack was incredibly fluid, fast, and mesmerizing at times. The likes of Welbeck, Rooney, Nani, Young, and Park were interchanging and in combination with quick one-touch football, it was as if Fulham were chasing shadows at times. More importantly, the Reds were continually penetrative and looking a threat.
Fulham sat back and did not press often so this allowed United's defenders and their central-midfielders -- particularly Carrick -- too much time on the ball. Murphy nor Etuhu rarely came forward to pressure Carrick. From this base in attack, Carrick and co. were able to supply their buzzing attackers and find the right points of entry into attack.
Rooney did his usual by dropping deep and finding pockets of space to operate in between the lines. From here, he did well to swing the ball wide while supplying the wingers or he was able to comfortably play quick one-touch football in tight spaces in order to break down the Fulham defense. Welbeck also did well to drop deep -- mostly on the left -- to link play. Chicharito may be a better finisher in the box but Welbeck brings a better all-around game that helps United when they intend to play this sort of football.The wide players freely roamed and combined well with the other attackers and Giggs did well to time his late-arriving runs into the box. This certainly made United a difficult team to play.
"We had to make some changes before the match and then Phil Jones picked up his injury. So it says a lot for the players. They stood up to a really difficult game." - Ferguson
Injuries have obviously ravaged the club as of late and Jones coming off forced some seemingly unpleasant options: either play an unfit Rafael or inexperienced Zeki Fryers OR play a player such as Valencia out of position. Ferguson likely anticipated that his side would control possession and therefore, the need for a natural defender at right-back wasn't as big of a need as someone who could get forward and supplement the attack. Valencia did this with overlapping runs when Nani went inside. Against a tougher side, this move would likely have proved riskier and Valencia would have been targeted by the opposition's attack. Once again, Fergie's squad responded well to this adversity and the value that he tends to place in versatile players appears to be sound reasoning.
"We couldn't get the ball to Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey, never mind Andy Johnson, and that was disappointing." - Jol
Fulham front four play very narrow and the genesis of their goalscoring chances often comes from the space between the lines -- where Dembele and Dempsey like to operate -- or from marauding full-backs. If you can cut off the supply to these attackers, then you often suffocate the Fulham attack. United did this. It's no wonder that Jol was disappointed.
As mentioned earlier, Fulham sat back didn't press United. Therefore, it was rare that they would win the ball high up the pitch and have a chance to penetrate an unorganized United defense. In addition, Fulham lost the midfield battle and their defenders were uninspiring on the ball -- thus, both Demebele and Dempsey found it difficult to consistently receive the ball in dangerous areas. Much of this could also be attributed to United controlling possession for the reasons mentioned previously.
"In the first half we weren't good enough, it was too easy for them. The second half was a lot better." - Jol
When Giggs scored United's third goal just before half-time, he effectively ended the match. Therefore, it was no surprise to most that they looked to lack urgency and intensity when they came out of the dressing room after half-time. There is a tactical explanation to this though as well. United did well to press in the 1st half -- especially Welbeck. However, as a unit, this intensity dropped and this allowed Fulham to grow into the match. This was perhaps the biggest reason for United's lackluster 2nd half and Fulham's improved play.
But then, Wazza's blistering curler from 30+ yards and Dimitar Berbatov's sublime backheel occurred. All was well again. All was fun again.
"Andy Johnson missed a hat-trick." - Ferguson
Holy hell, Andy Johnson really should have bagged at least a goal.
A fantastic performance by United and a fantastic tactical away approach by Fergie against a lesser side. United did well to establish control of the match early by using patience to stamp their talent authority. They pressed early while Fulham sat back -- Jol's side failed to adjust after United converted their early chances. Rather than coming out to play, Fulham appeared to simply hope for a nicked goal or damage control. Perhaps the scoreline was harsh after the Londoners improved in the 2nd half but it was hardly undeserved for United.