On a beautiful sun-filled afternoon at Old Trafford, Manchester United FC hosted Fulham FC for a Barclays Premier League clash, one in which the home side went on to win 2-0. On United's opening goal, Nani brilliantly ran at and beat two defenders, then combined well with Anderson for a 'one-two', and the Portuguese winger then laid it off for Dimitar Berbatov for a clinical finish. United added on another goal later in the 1st half when Nani beat Mark Schwarzer into space down the left side; after the Fulham goalkeeper failed to clear, Nani then attempted to chip in a shot from an acute angle and the ball ended up being deflected to Antonio Valencia for an easy headed finish. United have extended their lead to ten points over title-contending rival Arsenal with the North London yet to play their weekend match.
OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATION:
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson had United play in a '4-3-3' shape. Tomasz Kuszczak deputized for Edwin van der Sar in goal. Chris Smalling and Nemanja Vidic were the center-back pairing. John O'Shea returned from injury to play right-back and Patrice Evra was the left-back. Paul Scholes played as a deep-lying playmaker in front of his defense. Darron Gibson and Anderson played higher up the pitch in the central midfield, both in box-to-box roles. Valencia was the wide right player in attack and Nani was the wide left player. Berbatov was the striker up front.
Fulham manager Mark Hughes had his side play in a narrow '4-4-2' shape. Schwarzer was in goal and the center-backs were Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland. Chris Baird was the right-back and Carlos Salcido was the left-back. Dickson Etuhu and Danny Murphy did battle in the center of the pitch. Gael Kakuta deputized as the right-midfielder and Clint Dempsey played as the left-midfielder; both wide players played fairly narrow. Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele were the striker pairing, the latter of which continually dropped deep and wide to the left.
* Fulham started positively and put United under pressure in the early going. United were a bit leaky in defense at times and it usually stemmed from United leaving Fulham too much in between United's defense and midfield lines. Dembele, with movements deep and to the left, did well to expose this space, but the striker just didn't do enough to take advantage of his opportunities. Who was at fault for United? At times it was Scholes just not closing down that space and at times it was Smalling not getting forward in time to close down attackers.
* Fulham played in a narrow '4-4-2' shape as previously mentioned, but it may be better described as a '4-2-2-2' shape. For those of you that follow the US national team, it was very similar to how the US played last summer in South Africa during the FIFA World Cup. Dempsey and Kakuta, the wide players for Fulham, would start wide and continually tuck inside towards the center of the pitch. On Dempsey's side, Dembele, from his striker position in the middle of the pitch, would often move wide to the left into space. Zamora acted more as a pure target man up front, but he was virtually non-existent in the match because he was getting poor service and he was erased from the match by Vidic and Smalling.
* In the wide areas in the middle of the pitch, there was acres of space for Nani and Valencia to operate in. This was because the Fulham wide players (Dempsey & Kakuta) kept tucking in towards the middle. This allowed the two United wingers to continually run at their defenders 1 v 1 and the Fulham full-backs were getting abused. Nani especially forced Baird into having a shocker and the Portuguese international was the architect on both United goals. Here's a chalkboard of Valencia's passing and crosses courtesy of the Guardian:
* This chalkboard shows Dempsey's play though the middle. He was excellent in linking play as he completed 37 passes out of an attempted 39 (95%):
* Neither team pressed high up the pitch very much. From a United perspective, they almost invited Fulham to attack so they could win the ball in their own half, catch Fulham exposed in the previously mentioned spaces, and then surgically strike on the counter. United's three central midfielders did well to quickly swing the ball wide when they re-gained possession. As is typical, the wingers were the creative force in the match for United. This appeared to be the basic gameplan for United. Fulham were poor to adjust to this.
* Berbatov was very solid tonight and not just because of his goal. The Bulgarian striker was good in his movement and he often came deep for the ball. This had two positive effects: (1) He was able to hold the ball up to bring United into the attack and link up play. (2) By coming deep for the ball, he was moving his marker around like a chess piece, thus, space was being created for midfield runners, Nani especially. Berba gave a clinic on how to operate as a lone striker in a '4-3-3', something he's struggled with at times in the past.
* The full-backs were generally conservative by United standards, although Evra got forward for overlapping runs when Nani ran at defenders. O'Shea generally stayed back and stuck to his defensive duties.
* After the initial shaky start in the first 5-10 minutes of the match, United were in firm control and were looking to kill off the match. Tactically, it was fairly boring as not much switched from the opening half. United continually would win the ball, swing the ball wide, and break into attack. The central midfield bossed the match in the middle as well.
*Fulham took off Dembele early in the 2nd half, Hughes may have felt Dembele was wasteful with his opportunities, despite his disruptive movement. Hughes later tried to clog the middle by inserting another player in the center of the pitch but this failed to influence the match. United still controlled the match there and the supply to Zamora was choked off. However, substitute Eidur Gudjohnsen was able to fire off a shot that nearly beat Kuszczak; again this opportunity came in the space between the United defense and midfield lines. Smalling failed to close down the Icelandic striker on that particular occurrence.
* In a move that likely was a look ahead to the upcoming mid-week Champions League tie with Chelsea, Fergie took off Valencia in the 73rd minute for Michael Owen. United played the remainder of the match in a '4-4-2'. Again, not much occurred in the 2nd half that was worth mentioning. United continued to dominate, Fulham had a few genuine chances due to United being somewhat leaky in defense at times, but the home side failed to find the third goal to kill off the match.
* Man of the Match: Nani. He was brilliant on both goals and he continually destroyed Baird throughout the afternoon. Valencia was very solid as well on his side of the pitch. I thought both Berba and Vidic were excellent as well.
* To further expand on Vidic; he was quietly brilliant again. As he has done all season long, he erased the opposition's target man from the match. He's been consistently excellent throughout the season and I feel that he's clearly most deserving of every Player of the Year honors in the Premier League. Unfortunately, it's a difficult honor to win for a defender, despite there not being any convincing attacking players to claim the award. I'm still appalled that Nani was excluded from being a finalist for the PFA Player of the Year award.
* Great to see Anderson, O'Shea, and Owen return to the pitch. Anderson will be vitally important for the run-in. Despite the Brazilian's two goals in a mid-week reserves match, his finishing leaves much to be desired. He had a golden chance that was blown in the first half, although he did strike a ball well on goal in the 2nd half. Hopefully Owen provides a crucial substitute's goal at some point in the final two months. We're beginning to get healthy and gain depth... just in time.
* Opta pointed out that 17 of Berbatov's 21 goals have come at Old Trafford. Not a surprise to United supporters, but still an interesting stat. He's two goals clear of Carlos Tevez at the moment for the golden boot, amazing amount of goals considering that the Bulgarian isn't always first-choice. I may do a quick piece at some point breaking down the goal-scoring rates of our attackers and possibly some of the other leading goal-scorers in the Premier League.
* Ten points clear, albeit two games in hand, it'll be interesting to see how Arsenal handles that. If they trip up at all this weekend, #19 may likely be ours.
* Big week ahead.... should be fun!