Saturday brings another prime opportunity for Manchester United to climb the Premier League table when last-placed Fulham visit Old Trafford. On paper, this should be an easy win for the Reds. But similar chances have gone begging in recent weeks, so take nothing for granted with this team.
On Wednesday, United twice came from behind to earn a 2-2 draw against in-form Arsenal. Not the most exciting result, but definitely a step in the right direction. “It’s a positive sign,” manager José Mourinho said afterwards, “but there are things I cannot get from them and I cannot say much more than this. But they showed a big soul. Everybody gave everything, that is for sure, and it is a positive feeling.”
“I prefer just to say that I am happy with the soul, the commitment, the bravery. I’m really happy with that.”
With the Reds ravaged by injuries, Mourinho cobbled together a defense from the outskirts of his squad. Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly, and Marcos Rojo played in a three-man backline, flanked by Diogo Dalot and Matteo Darmian at wingback. All things considered, this makeshift group performed reasonably well — at least, far better than the Matić-McTominay experiment at the weekend.
Anthony Martial celebrated his 23rd birthday in fine fashion, scoring his seventh goal in eight league matches to level the score at 1-1. Unfortunately, the birthday boy left the match in the 63rd minute with an apparent muscular injury, although early indications look good for a quick return. United cannot afford for Martial to miss any time.
Other big news: Mourinho dropped Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku to the bench. Lukaku, who finally broke his duck at Southampton after nearly 1,000 scoreless minutes, might feel hard done by. But United seem to play better with a more mobile player up top. Marcus Rashford’s not exactly in a purple patch, but offers much more off the ball.
Pogba, on the other hand, should have seen this coming. His performance at St. Mary’s was widely panned — not to mention the reported dressing room confrontation over his attitude. No surprise here that Pogba didn’t make the starting eleven. We’ll see if he’s brought back this weekend.
For Fulham, it’s been an eventful few weeks. With the club’s return to the Premier League off to a miserable start, Claudio Ranieri replaced Slavisa Jokanovic in the Craven Cottage hot-seat on November 14. Fulham spent four years wandering in the Championship wilderness before winning promotion last season and, with Ranieri’s appointment, are taking no chances of a quick return.
So far, so good. The Cottagers defeated fellow relegation candidate Southampton in Ranieri’s first match in charge, before putting up a spirited effort at Stamford Bridge last weekend. It ended 2-0 to Chelsea, but Fulham gave the Blues a fight that seemed unthinkable under Jokanovic.
On Wednesday, Fulham drew 1-1 with Leicester City in what was an emotional reunion for the new manager and the club he famously steered to the 2015-16 Premier League title. The Cottagers let a first-half lead slip away, but will still be pleased with the hard-fought point.
It remains a work in progress, but Ranieri already has his new squad playing at a faster pace and aiming to carve up opponents on the counter. This is a huge change from Jokanovic’s possession-based approach, but probably represents Fulham’s best chance at survival. No doubt Ranieri will tighten up the defense, too.
In that area, the Cottagers struggle even more than United. In fact, they’re the only club in the entire Football League — yep, all 92 of them — without a clean sheet this season. Ranieri prides himself on instilling defensive shape and discipline, but he’s got his work cut out for him with this group. 36 goals conceded in only 15 matches is about as bad as it gets.
He doesn’t inherit the likes of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, or N’Golo Kante at Fulham, but the cupboard’s not totally bare. Calum Chambers, on loan from Arsenal, has emerged as a standout at defensive midfielder, with top-notch performances at Anfield and Stamford Bridge in recent weeks.
After the Chelsea defeat, Ranieri admitted that Chambers’s positional versatility caught him by surprise. “He played very well,” the Italian manager said. “He's a good midfielder. He understands what I want and also, when he has the ball, he moves it very quickly and in the right way. I’m very, very surprised.”
Other players to watch are Ryan Sessegnon (now back in his preferred left wing position), Aleksandr Mitrovic, Jean Michael Seri, and Andre Schurrle. If Ranieri can coax out improved play from this lot, expect Fulham to climb to safety in short order.
But, on Saturday, Manchester United must hit the pause button on this Claudio Ranieri feel-good story. The Reds haven’t won a league match in over a month and, at Old Trafford, their last Premier League win came before Halloween. It’s time to get back to winning ways.