On the day that Sir Alex Ferguson’s cross town counterpart received his P45, the Manchester Untied manager will put this defeat down to circumstance. But United’s humiliating 3-0 away loss to Fulham cannot be blamed solely on injuries to key staff. The burden of responsibility must also fall on Sir Alex.
United, lining up in the unfamiliar 3-5-2 formation deployed in Germany, were out of shape and sorts from the off at Craven Cottage. In more than 20 years at the helm the number of matches Ferguson has deployed three centre halves are counted on one hand. It was an utter disaster, with Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Ritchie de Laet horribly exposed by a vibrant Fulham side.
Still, United actually started the match quite brightly with Antonio Valencia unlucky not to earn a penalty for a push in the opening minutes. Referee Howard Webb seemed unsighted as the Ecuadorian fell. In truth it was just about the closest United came to a goal in a dreadful opening half for Ferguson’s men.
Paul Scholes, sent off at the same venue last season, saw yellow for a reckless tackle that took both man and ball in the same movement. But Scholes’ place on the pitch is undermined more by the United legend’s wayward passing on days like this. Time has diminished little of the 600-game veteran’s talents but sadly they are now applied more inconsistently.
Scholes was not alone in his woes however with nearly half the team deployed out of place. It’s one thing compensating for injuries; it’s quite another disrupting the shape of the side.
Still, Untied kept possession well in the first quarter of the match. Darron Gibson, now a permanent fixture in the side, shooting wildly when set up by Wayne Rooney. The hype of recent long-range efforts encouraging the Irishman to shoot when a pass is a better option.
But Fulham was always in the match and Bobby Zamora crossed for American Clint Dempsey to draw a fine save from Tomasz Kuszczak in the United goal. The Polish international, playing in his seventh match in a row, then produced even better from Zoltan Gera’s header minutes later.
Fulham’s opening strike came from Danny Murphy, so often United’s tormentor in the past. And it was Scholes who gifted possession to the former-Liverpool midfielder to strike home from 20 yards at the midway point of the half.
In attack, Rooney and Michael Owen were playing like a pair of strangers as they so often did for England, while Fulham offered threat in every forage towards United’s goal. The visitors have rarely been so shapeless.
Rooney headed wide and Gibson shot over when he could have passed as United’s strategy of hope bore little fruit. Indeed, Fulham could have doubled the lead before half time with Gera and Zamora combining once again for the former West Ham United striker to head wide.
The match was then over just 19 seconds into the second period when Fulham doubled the advantage. Duff’s cross to the back post, met by Dempsey’s neat touch was gleefully slammed home by Zamora.
All belief drained from the United players. Why should there have been any – they were never in the game. It was cruel on de Laet, cruelly exposed at the top-level.
As always United sought a way back into the game as Dimitar Berbatov and Fabio da Silva entered the attack. It finally ignited a flame in the visitors with Valencia testing Mark Schwartzer in Fulham’s net, Rooney shooting wide from Berbatov’s smart pass and Scholes slashing well wide from the edge of the area.
But then came the denouement as Irishman Duff lashed home Zamora’s chested pass for Fulham’s third. The final whistle couldn’t come soon enough.
“I hope today is not too damaging. I hope it doesn’t cost us the league,” Ferguson told MUTV in summary.
“We have to get our defenders back to give us a proper chance of going for the league. If we get them back we’ll be back in it. The quicker they’re back the better.
“The medical team and physios are working overtime to get them back, but there’s no light at the end of the tunnel at the moment, that’s for sure.”
Ferguson, without seven defenders today, undoubtedly needs good fortune in the season of good-will. Sometimes, however, he needs to help himself too.