Plenty of column inches discussed the deepening doom gathering around Craven Cottage this week. The dire display against Sheffield United was indefensible – but the idea that Rene Meulensteen had been given two games to save his job seemed pretty far-fetched to me. Here’s a man thrust into a managerial role and one hell of a relegation dogfight at short-notice when it became clear that Martin Jol’s race was run, only to be dispatched a matter of days after the board had backed him with a £12m purchase were he not to pick up points against Manchester United or Liverpool.
There could be no doubting the pressure Meulensteen was under, however. If he wasn’t 180 minutes away from his P45, Fulham’s fate was precarious enough to have him burning the midnight oil. One of the Dutchman’s most endearing qualities during this painful period has been his sunny demeanour – a confidence that he had the ability to turn things around. After succumbing to a side struggling against the drop in League One, there could be doubting the depth of the problem. And, judging by the way Fulham were set up at Old Trafford this afternoon, the diagnosis was a simple one: back to basics.
You could see that the result was a product of successive sessions on the Motspur Park training pitches. There was more than a hint of the Hodgson defensive shape about the way Fulham went about their business against the champions. A narrow back four was supported by a shield formed of two deep-lying midfielders, whilst defensive wingers tucked in to make the shape even more compact. Their presence allowed Riether and Riise to be primarily concerned with covering the width of the penalty area, leaving little space for United to play around the centre backs. In front of those two banks of four sat Lewis Holtby, notionally an attacking midfielder, but tasked with doing plenty of hassling and harrying without the ball. Although the setting may have been inspiring, Muamer Tankovic’s first Premier League start was more likely to be about graft than glory.
The big calls concerned the personnel whom Meulensteen would trust to stop the rot. Playing Kieran Richardson ahead of John Arne Riise gave Fulham solidity down their left-flank, almost serving notice of their intentions, although the former Manchester United man’s searing pace and willing endeavour saw him trouble his former employers far more regularly than they might have expected. Few would have predicted captain Brede Hangeland dropping out of the starting line-up and Scott Parker’s absence from the first eleven meant Fulham were without a battler who would put his foot in.
But this was about more than being brave. Smart, speedy football was called for. Fulham weren’t going to have much of the ball, so making the best use of it was crucial. Meulensteen opted to hand Ryan Tunicliffe a Premier League debut against the team he’d dreamt of breaking into and the Trafford boy didn’t let anyone down. Disciplined in defence, composed in possession and eager to run at opponents even in an unfamiliar wide role, his was a diligent display. That Fulham fashioned the best chances of a first period they spent on the back foot would have baffled the pundits.
Taking the lead with a move of outrageous quality befuddled everyone. Holtby, such a livewire on his debut against Sunderland, showed just what an outstanding talent he is with delightfully chipped pass that prized open a horribly square and static United defence. The weight of pass was perfect for the galloping Sidwell to surge into the box and, without breaking stride, steer into the bottom left corner with the modicum of fuss. The great unspoken aspect of the goal was the intelligent running of Tankovic, who turned Vidic back towards his own goal, and created the space into which Fulham’s goalscorer roamed.
Whatever the statistics suggested, Fulham could have been out of sight at half-time. Two breakaways, powered by Richardson’s pace, might have put the match beyond United. First, the midfielder – so regularly maligned since his arrival from Sunderland – cleared a United corner inside his own box and, buoyed by the purpose of Tankovic’s fine run, appeared on the Swede’s left shoulder in the blink of an eye. Tankovic timed the pass to perfection, but Richardson’s composure eluded him as De Gea appeared in his eye-line, and the shot flew over. Later in the half, only a fine inception from the retreating Rooney prevented Holtby from latching onto Richardson’s cross as Fulham threatened again after a swift counter-attack.
Much has been made of the feebleness of United’s crossing – but Meulensteen deserves credit here too. With Richardson and Tunnicliffe reminded of their defensive duties, United were often attacking a back six. Space was at a premium and Fulham’s compact shape meant the only room was on the flanks. Lacking the height of a Fellaini, crosses had to be perfect – and United seemed strangely resistant to fizzing a few along the ground. The imperious Dan Burn, who has barely put a foot wrong since being recalled from his loan spell at Birmingham to plug Fulham’s leaky defence, dealt with high ball after high ball, making 22 successful clearances with composure that belied his tender age.
Credit too to William Kvist, who has delivered organisation and destructiveness at the base of a midfield so easily breached previously. The Dane looked utterly spent when he was substituted in the second half, but his tackles, blocks and bravery allowed Sidwell to express himself in more advanced positions – which was so crucial in the two moves that led to Fulham’s goals. The addition of Tunnicliffe, Holtby and Tankovic meant Fulham were far less pedestrian than in past weeks – and the energy that Meulensteen had called for surged through the side.
It was, of course, asking too much for the league’s bottom side to complete their rearguard action, but most pleasing was the character that came through once they were behind. Instead of folding, Fulham went for broke and got their reward. How fitting that it came courtesy of a bit of poaching from Darren Bent. That predatory instinct inside the six-yard box was what prompted Jol to bring him in, but this has been a frustrating loan spell for the man so marginalised at Aston Villa. Parallels with Fulham’s other hero in Manchester, Diomansy Kamara, might be premature but the Senegalese striker also endured a difficult first season at Craven Cottage.
Bent made his point with aplomb in injury-time but this triumph – for that’s what it felt like by the final whistle – was Meulensteen’s. Nobody will be fooled into believing the league’s worst defence is transformed, but this is a steady start on the road towards solidity.