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Tactical Analysis: Manchester United 3 vs. Fulham 2

In what was very much a game of two halves, Manchester United recorded a narrow win over Fulham where both Robin Van Persie and Shinji Kagawa got off the mark on their home début.


Alex Ferguson made four changes to his Manchester United team which lost away to Everton last week – the most notable of which was the inclusion of Robin Van Persie, who was handed his starting début in place of Wayne Rooney. Manchester United played with a 4-2-3-1 formation with Shinji Kagawa given the central play-making role.

Fulham lined up in a 4-4-1-1 and made only one change to the starting line-up which thrashed Norwich on the opening day, with John Arne Riise injured and replaced by Matty Briggs at left back. Bryan Ruiz was given the role as the second striker in behind Mladen Petric.



Early Goals

In just the 2nd minute of the game Manchester United went behind to a Damien Duff goal from a brilliantly worked set piece on the edge of the penalty area. Rafael was dispossessed and a clever jink inside by Petric drew a foul from Michael Carrick. The resulting set-play was intelligent and well-disguised and allowed Duff space to slot home the cut back.

For the goal, the run by Hughes took away Rafael and opened up the space for Duff to drop into for the cut back. It was a well-disguised move, as Manchester United was expecting a clip to the back post for Hangeland or Petric.

The crowd was stunned but it wasn’t too long until normal service resumed – with Manchester United equalising through an exquisite finish from big money signing Robin Van Persie.

Martin Jol would be disappointed with the way Fulham conceded; they lost their shape far too easily from what was a relatively basic, sharp passing move from United.

A breakdown of the first phase of possession for Manchester United can clearly show Fulham’s two banks of four with Ruiz in front. I would suggest that the initial positional mistake was down to Damien Duff (highlighted). As the thrown in was played to Kagawa and laid off to Ashley Young, Duff should have been the player closing down the ball. This would have allowed the whole unit to step forward whilst maintaining their shape. However Duff was too slow to react and Dembele was the player to close which immediately distorted Fulham’s 4-4-1-1 in defence. The ball was played to Cleverley and passed on to Anderson with Ruiz and Diarra closing down their respective player (note: Ruiz continues to track Cleverley on his overlap of Anderson). The image below will show how distorted Fulham’s shaped became after this simple passing passage:

Fulham’s 4-4-1-1 was now non-existent and it required Duff and Dembele to try to come back inside to close the space; however Anderson switched play back to the left which left Evra free in space. Riether was too slow to close down the cross (after initially tracking Young inside who had interchanged with Kagawa off the ball) and this allowed Evra time to pick out a cross. Admittedly the cross from Evra was poor, however Van Persie’s dart forward to evade Hangeland and his finish was world-class and unstoppable.

Manchester United Dominance

Once Manchester United got the equaliser they look comfortable and created numerous chances. Often these chances occurred due to formation errors from Fulham which allowed United to find space, either in between the lines for Kagawa or out wide, in particular on the right where Rafael and Valencia where a constant attacking threat.

The second goal for Manchester United, scored by Shinji Kagawa, came from a set piece – with Tom Cleverley striking from distance after an attempted clearance. Riether and Ruiz were slow to push out and Kagawa’s awareness was evident as he drifted away from Ruiz (who should have watched him as they pushed out) and tapped in the rebound.

United pushed on and it wasn’t too long after until Rafael put them two goals up. Just moments after having a goal disallowed for offside, Rafael popped up on the back post to head home from close range after an Ashley Young cross. I would again suggest Jol would be unhappy with the manner of which Fulham conceded – with Damien Duff again at fault for switching off.

After a short corner was played Rafael laid the ball back out wide and darted into the box; the cross was played in and half cleared but the ball fell to Young. As can be seen, Duff tucked inside to pick up Rafael; and when Young clipped the ball to the back post, Duff was guilty of ball watching which allowed Rafael to get around the blind side of himself and Petric to score.

Fulham had a chance to get back into the game just before half-time but two smart saves from De Gea, combined with some luck meant Petric was denied a goal and United went into the break two goals ahead and looking comfortable.

Second Half Changes

The opening 15 minutes of the second half looked as if United would cruise to a comfortable victory. They continued to probe without really creating a clear-cut chance; although it was evident that Fulham maintained their shape much more effectively early on.

The game changing moment was the first substitution for Fulham. Martin Jol decided to sacrifice Alex Kacaniklic, who had a promising first half, in place of Steve Sidwell and switch to a 4-5-1. Bryan Ruiz dropped into right midfield with Damien Duff moving to the left.

Immediately the change paid dividends, with Duff being the catalyst for the goal. Duff, who in the first half only completed 1 pass and was poor in defence also, found some space and played a defence splitting pass to find Matty Briggs on the overlap. The resulting cross (which was a hopeful clip into the box) caused chaos as David De Gea came for the ball but did not get anything on his punch, the ball ricocheted off Vidic’s heal and Fulham were back in the game.

Ferguson reacted by making a double substitution – Rooney and Welbeck on in place of Kagawa and Young. However, what was interesting was his decision to have Van Persie drop deeper and play Rooney as the more forward of the two.

By this stage the game had shifted slightly into Fulham’s favour as they saw more of the ball and were able to create a few chances of their own for an equaliser.

Three final substitutions also came, with Rodallega and Baird replacing Petric and Diarra and Ryan Giggs coming on for Anderson. In the final few minutes Jol again switched the formation around – with Dembele and Hangeland playing as auxiliary strikers as they searched for a late goal.

It looked as if it was possible; however two incredible reflex saves from De Gea ensured United maintained their slender lead. A late injury for Rooney, a nasty gash after an accidental collision with Rodallega, was a sour ending for United as they took all three points.


It was evident that Manchester United were doing a good job of provoking Fulham into losing their shape – and in the first half they created numerous clear-cut chances. An early goal from Fulham was a set back but United quickly stepped up and showed their dominance.

In the second half Fulham improved, partly due to Jol’s tactical changes, and could have gone away with a point; however United stayed strong and etched out a 3-2 win.

Post-match Martin Jol agreed with the observation of it being a game of two halves, stating:

“Even though we scored an early goal we were still not full of confidence, and United played so well in the first half I thought it might be a really bad day for us. We just couldn’t keep up with Cleverley and Anderson, but we managed to win the second half 1-0, so it was a game of two totally different halves.”

Manchester United can be pleased with the win and their dominant first half display.

Kate Cohen
Kate Cohenhttp://katecohensoccer.wordpress.com/
A football enthusiast from Sydney, Australia. You can read more of my work on katecohensoccer.wordpress.com and also follow me on twitter (@Kate_LFC_SFC)
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