As must-win games go this was a definite must-win, especially as Scott Parker even said so. And if he says it’s a must-win, then you know for sure it’s a MUST [insert expletive] WIN.
Scott’s team selection didn’t provide anything too surprising, and it was good to see a left-footed left back in the side (being a traditionalist like myself). Personally, I’d been a fan of the back 3 and was dubious when we returned to a flat back 4 as I thought we’d end up more exposed at the back because of it. Thankfully my concerns appear to have been unwarranted as Andersen and Tosin have held the fort brilliantly whilst the full backs haven’t let their defensive duties go wanting while still managing to complement the attacking play (even if the final ball is often lacking a tad…).
The first half was another case of the Whites being the far better side from a quality point of view, but the Blades’ organisation reduced the home side to a few half-chances. It’s clear that Josh Maja has just been tasked with a poacher role, but the service to him was essentially non-existent, which left him a bit of an anonymous figure throughout much of the half (not that that side of things improved much in the 2nd half).
The Sky Sports graphic had suggested that Cavaleiro was playing alongside Maja but he appeared to be playing a wider role, whilst having the opportunity to come more central with the ball. Cav’s performances when asked to play up top certainly left a lot to be desired, but he seems a lot more confident/competent when asked to play in his more natural position.
United rarely threatened throughout the first 45, lacking any real quality going forward, but it’s clear that Wilder has worked well in organising his ragtag bunch of troops, even if their lowly position this season may suggest otherwise. Fulham certainly played with more confidence, but they couldn’t make their possession superiority (all 73% of it) count and when the half time whistle blew with the scoreboard untroubled, I’m sure I was one of many who had that sinking feeling in their stomach. Although I don’t think the spectacle was helped by rubbing chilli in my eye whilst cooking my pre-match meal. Or maybe it enhanced the experience.
Thankfully, Ademola Lookman, freshly removed from my FPL team and clearly relieved to not have that pressure on him anymore, lifted the sense of foreboding with another cracking goal against the Sheffield side. As route one goals go, this was a beauty. Joa’s ball from inside his own half was gloriously pinpoint and Lookman’s chest control was simply outstanding, complemented by some wet-fish defending by Chelsea-loanee Ethan Ampadu and the fizzed shot fired through the legs of the helpless Ramsdale capped off a mere few seconds of joyous football that would send the Whites to within 3 points of Newcastle.
I think we all would’ve preferred Parker’s men to have pushed for a second to kill the game off as it seemed the away side were on the ropes, but as is often the way, the tactic then reverted to preservation – which almost led to disaster on a few occasions. Having had very little to do for the first hour or so of the match, Areola again came to the rescue, thwarting Billy Sharp when he got in behind the defence, and bravely blocking Jayden Bogle right at the death. VAR checked that last chance to see if the French keeper had fouled the United man, but whilst he clearly clattered him (as the audible groans had already suggested) you’d have been hard-pressed to suggest it was anything other than top-quality, brave goalkeeping. Although there do appear to be a lot of pundits suggesting otherwise – Darren Bent is one of them, so it was probably a correct decision.
The sense of relief when Martin Atkinson blew the final whistle would’ve been palpable in Fulham-supporting living rooms around the country/world. Having seen an hour of dominance, it was a nail-biting last 30 minutes but perhaps that was more down to what was at stake and having watched Fulham throw games away too many times before, than the team not being in control (the couple of United chances aside). Parker clearly has a game plan and even though it was edge-of-your-seat stuff at times, it worked out perfectly. We can’t deny there’s a lack of clinical edge in the team, but this is unlikely to magically change in the next few games, so we will just have to continue playing to our strengths and grind out those valuable results.
The next game against Palace surely again falls into the must-win category, with tough games against Spurs, Liverpool (arguably) and Man City coming up straight after, so fingers crossed the confidence garnered from a very successful week of football, plus a week off, will see Parker’s Super Eagles (et al) come out fighting against Roy’s currently Not-So-Super Eagles.
Other notes on the game:
- Loftus-Cheek, and of course this will divide opinion as it always does, again showed why he’s in the team… his strength on the ball is something that none of our other forward players seem to possess. His final ball/finishing is certainly still questionable, but it was only a goal-line clearance that thwarted what would’ve been an exceptional solo effort just before Lookman grabbed his goal.
- Zambo, needless booking aside, was back to his ball-keeping, driving runs best and you just know that one day, one of his shots will hit the back of the net. Or at least get within the same postcode as the goal. Baby steps.
- The golden triangle of Andersen, Tosin and Harrison Reed was again the rock that we’ve come to know and love. While we may have gone back to 2 centre backs, Reed’s position adds that solidity that may have been lost by taking Aina out of the central role.
- Scott Parker may cut a level-headed, unexcitable character in interviews, but the passion he showed at the final whistle shows that his fighting spirit is well-and-truly alive; although perhaps it would be a bit odd if he started shouting like that when talking to reporters.