Being beaten by a Manchester United side who are experiencing a renaissance under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can’t be considered a disgrace. But the lack of a clear strategy to trouble the visitors – or a plan to redeem themselves after the concession of a couple of soft goals in the first half – should deeply worry both the Fulham hierarchy and Claudio Ranieri. After all, the Italian was brought in to replace Slavisa Jokanovic on the understanding that he would be able to fortify Fulham’s leaky defence and the improvement has been marginal at past.
The boos that greeted the second half replacement of Andre Schurrle with Cyrus Christie summed up just how out of the touch the Fulham manager is with the Craven Cottage faithful. Ranieri thought the home fans were lampooning his decision to introduce a full-back for Schurrle, who had struggled with the flu in the build up to this fixture, or switch to 5-3-2 when the Whites were already 2-0 down. In actual fact, the Fulham fans were disappointed that Ryan Sessegnon and Tom Cairney, consigned to the bench again with the need for a win almost reaching desperation point, weren’t summoned forward to add a spark to what had become a limp display.
Omitting Fulham’s two most consistent performers during their promotion-winning season wasn’t the only way in which Ranieri’s selection was muddled. He went with a five-man defence at Crystal Palace last week when Roy Hodgson’s side were likely to sit in during a tense contest, but opted for a flat back four this afternoon when Solskjaer’s side were always certain to come at the league’s worst defence with all guns blazing.
Denis Odoi, shifted from centre back to right back here after Cyrus Christie had conceded a penalty at Selhurst Park last weekend, struggled in the same position at Old Trafford earlier in the season. He was like a fish out of water against the pace and power of Anthony Martial. The French winger skipped away from him before creating the opening goal with a clever pass for Paul Pogba, who squeezed his finish between Sergio Rico and his near post. The Spanish goalkeeper perhaps should have done better – but the contest was effectively over after fourteen minutes.
Martial then displayed the blistering pace and mesmerising skill that prompted United to pay Monaco a rumoured £36m for his services back in 2015. The winger received possession from Phil Jones and sprinted fully forty yards before curling an unstoppable finish beyond Rico, darting away from both Odoi and the unfortunate Maxime Le Marchand, to double United’s lead. At that point, it seemed as if the visitors could have as many goals as they wanted. It was something of surprise that they only added one more, which came when Pogba clinically converted a penalty after Paul Tierney pointed to the spot when Juan Mata tumbled after Le Marchand’s challenge twenty minutes into the second half.
Fulham’s defensive disarray is old news. Without Alfie Mawson due to a freak injury, the Whites are without a genuine top flight centre back – and it shows. There seems to be a brittleness to their spirit, too, these days that suggests they are beaten once the opposition gets in front. After a bright start, Ranieri’s men showed very little in the second half. The closest they came to a semblance of fight was when Aleksandar Mitrovic squared up to David de Gea in stoppage time after the pair challenged each over for a loose ball.
Time is running out for Fulham and Ranieri. The Italian manager hasn’t been able to make a decent fist of this survival mission – and the placid Craven Cottage crowd appears to have turned against him. The Whites actually started this game at quite a tempo and almost caught United cold at the very start but Luciano Vietto scuffed a simple finish at the back post when he had been sent clear by a raking crossfield ball from Schurrle. A nightmare run of fixtures and a ten point gap to Cardiff – after the Bluebirds’ emotional win at Southampton this afternoon – suggests that a side who achieved promotion with such a swagger last season will soon leave the top flight with barely a whimper. It is a terrible shame and one hell of a missed opportunity.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Rico; Odoi, Bryan (R. Sessegnon 81), Le Marchand, Ream; Chambers, Seri; Schurrle (Christie 53), Babel (Cairney 77), Vietto; Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Fabri, Anguissa, Ayite, Kebano.
BOOKED: Bryan, Chambers, Mitrovic.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-3-3): de Gea; Dalot, Shaw, Smalling, Jones; Matic, Herrera (Bailly 85), Pogba (McTominay 74); Mata, Martial (Sanchez 70), Lukaku. Subs (not used): Romero, Young, Lingard, Rashford.
BOOKED: Matic, de Gea.
GOALS: Pogba (14, pen 65), Martial (23)
REFEREE: Paul Tierney (Lancashire)