After more than enough signs that we were heading in the right direction after the first three games under Claudio Ranieri, it was fair that many of us travelled to Old Trafford with a sense of optimism and hoped that we might get something from the game. Considering United’s patchy form against teams you would expect them to beat already this season – this cautious optimism didn’t seem to feel unfounded. What followed was one of the worst 45 minutes we’ve played so far this season – which is a very contested field – and signs of life in the second half. The capacity this team has to look completely lost and overwhelmed in a 45-minute spell is one of the main reasons why it is hard to have too much faith in us to get points on a consistent basis.
Firstly, the novelty of going back to grounds such as Old Trafford to watch the Whites after a few seasons outside the top flight still hasn’t really worn off. On the walk up to a stadium you’ve seen so many times on TV, it feels surreal to be going inside to watch Fulham, even if you’ve already done it before. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty decent case to say that our players seem to be experiencing the same emotions.
Historically our record against the big teams in the league away from home is shocking, which isn’t overly surprising given the quality of the teams in that bracket. But other sides in the league have shown that it is possible to go to teams in that big six and at least give them a scare, if not get a result. That both Wolves and Palace have already got draws this season at Old Trafford in performances full of tactical discipline and effective, pacey counter-attacks showed a template for how to get at United and other superior teams.
Whether we can match that game plan is arguable and shows a serious blind spot in the recruitment of the club during the summer. The club signed players that could play a fluid 4-3-3 with a lot of possession and attacking movement but now under Ranieri that style of play is gone and has been replaced by the standard bottom half Premier League template of trying to sit deep, defend and spring counter-attacks. The problem with us trying to adopt this template is our best players don’t fit into it, and their replacements don’t appear to have the requisite quality to give us a chance of staying up.
Just like the rest of the fanbase, I love Mitro but Saturday showed his limitations when trying to utilise a different style of play. Without any pace to get in behind we don’t worry the opposition defence at all, allowing them to push up further and have a greater chance of scoring against us as a result. Not only that but with TC behind him, we don’t put anything like the pressure on the opposition that we should be in order to force mistakes. It isn’t only those two players who have a problem in that area and it is fast becoming a defining characteristic of this team. Ranieri obviously realises the issue as both TC and Mitro were taken off at halftime for Kamara and Vietto and we immediately looked like causing some problems for a previously untested United defence.
Despite our success last season our defence never showed signs of being Premier League level. What we saw on Saturday was poor but it’s been exactly the same all season. Some of our fans have put a lot of energy into criticising Seri in particular, but we spent a similar amount of money on Alfie Mawson and he simply hasn’t delivered. However, it’s unfair and inaccurate to say that he is solely responsible for our regular defensive horror shows and there doesn’t appear to be a ready-made solution awaiting anywhere in the squad.
The composition of the midfield is another concern, with Anguissa suspended for next weekend’s home game against an in-form West Ham, and no word on the availability of Chambers or Kmac after injury. The best solution may be to drop TC back into a deeper role alongside Seri and allow Kamara or Vietto to be deployed off Mitrovic to give us more danger on the break. It’s doubtful that Ranieri would do this considering his emphasis on keeping the team solid through the middle of the pitch but it is still an idea worth considering.
Easily the best performance from anyone related to Fulham was to the fans again. Despite being absolutely battered in the first half – the away end at Old Trafford was a genuinely great place to be and easily made more noise than the rest of the ground. If we were able to transfer that same noise into our home games, then we might offer the players a lift in their performances. For whatever reason, we haven’t done that as fans this year at home, but we’ve shown on successive away days that we can do it. Maybe it’s everyone being able to stand or people who want to sing and chant actually being near each other than spread out all over the Cottage but it does make a big difference.
Ultimately, before this game, we’d shown steady signs of improvement and there was a greater sense of disappointment we didn’t hold on for all three points against Leicester than what happened on Saturday. But right now it is inescapable to feel like we are watching a side that appears to be sliding out of the league without much of a fight. Teams can have calamitous periods in games, but they are usually shocking because they don’t happen with regularity. The same can’t be said this time. I’m reluctant to follow the Match of The Day line of if you concede as many goals as we have been that we are going down – but it really is hard to feel any other way right now.
The next four games against West Ham, Newcastle, Wolves and Huddersfield are vital in building the confidence of the team. Despite all the negativity, we are still more than in touch with the teams above us in the table and we do have the ability in the squad to get us out of the hole we are in. Asking for more wins from this game than we have had in the league all season might be a bit much, but we have to start demanding better from a talented group of players with a more than successful manager. We never thought that we’d achieve what we did at the end of last season this time last year – so just maybe these four games can push us on to achieving our goals this time around.