Manchester United rolled into Craven Cottage Saturday afternoon and rolled out 3-1 victors, although the match statistics suggest Fulham were unlucky not to have at least gained a point.
I say "unlucky" because for much of the second half, the Whites bossed the game and created numerous scoring opportunities, eventually tallying 15 attempts at goal to Manchester United's 10.
Maybe I should have said "fortunate". Fulham's second half resurgence wasn't all down to tactical adjustments and personnel tweaks, although Martin Jol did shuffle Pajtim Kasami into midfield and sprinkle a little Adel Taarabt into attack with a dash of Alexander Kacaniklic and a pinch of Darren Bent in what eventually morphed in to a sort of 4-1-3-2.
Nine minutes after Fulham's bright start to the match, Antonio Valencia slotted home a Wayne Rooney square ball to make it 1-0 to United. This came against the flow of play but decidedly in keeping with the ominshambles Fulham's back five have become in recent weeks. I say "back five" because Stekelenburg cannot escape culpability. Philippe Senderos lost Rooney, Stekelenburg started to come then stopped, allowed Rooney to settle the ball, and the toupeed one found Antonio Valencia for the opening tally.
Ten minutes later, Robin Van Persie latched on to an Adnan Januzaj pass (a pass that possibly should never have happened due to a foul on Scott Parker) and lashed home United's second. Two minutes later, Van Persie thoroughly beat Fulham's amateurish offside trap and played Rooney square for United's third,
Where were we? Ah! The "fortunate" part. In the first half, David Moyes's boys were shredding Fulham's defense. Van Persie and Rooney were finding it far too easy to drift off Senderos and Fernando Amorebieta and find balls played into the channels. Additionally, Rooney in particular was finding a lethal pocket of space between Scott Parker/Steve Sidwell and the Fulham back line. The result left the Fulham back four retreating to their own goal in front of an advancing United attacker. They couldn't possibly watch the ball and the Red Devil runners at the same time and chaos ensued.
But then Rafael, Tom Cleverly, and Jonny Evans went down injured. Moyes was forced to use all three of his substitutions at half time. Shinji Kagawa came on for Cleverly, but took over the position Wayne Rooney had occupied so dangerously in the first half. Rooney dropped deep into midfield. Chris Smalling, the former Fulham man, came on for Rafael and Phil Jones slid back to consolidate the United defense. Marouane Fellaini was brought in to hold Jones's spot in the Red Devils' midfield.
Essentially, six positions of the ten outfield berths responsible for scorching Fulham in the first half were changed at half time.
United didn't so much take their foot off the gas as much as their foot cramped up and had to be held back a bit.
In defense of Martin Jol, and I know that's approaching near blasphemous talk among Fulham fans these days, his tactics weren't wrong. In contrast to what I predicted in my preview for Saturday's match, Jol bravely shunned conventional loss aversion and fielded a dynamic, attacking lineup. Ashkan Dejagah was thrown into the scrap and allowed to run at Patrice Evra while Dimitar Berbatov finally forewent his dalliances in midfield and occupied the Manchester United center backs, making inside/out runs into the channels to collect the ball and establish possession in the final third.
If anything, Jol was let down by the personnel he decided to deploy in key areas. Bryan Ruiz was tasked with linking the midfield to the front line and his unhurried play and poor service from set pieces dulled the Cottagers' attacking edge. Perhaps Pajtim Kasami would have been more incisive in the Ruiz role with Alexander Kacaniklic providing industry and thrust on the left side.
Fernando Amorebieta and Philippe Senderos were well below par as a central defensive duo. All three United goals can in some measure be attributed to their abject decision making and positioning. Even after Jol adjusted Fulham's system in an effort to chase the game, United were unlucky not to have scored at least two more due to the collective deficiencies of Senderos and Amorebieta. Senderos lunged into a challenge on Fellaini in the second half after he was drawn well out of position and was only bailed out by United's inability to move the ball quickly as the Swiss international was left floundering on the ground. Amorebieta received a yellow card after committing a "professional" foul that looked decidedly amateurish when one takes in to account the angle he took to challenge Antonio Valencia as he ran onto a long through ball.
Manchester United were headed for a thorough dismantling of Martin Jol's spit and paper defensive pairing, but were railroaded by the knocks picked up by Rafael, Cleverly, and Evans.
Why Aaron Hughes was not called in to the side is perhaps the most pointed question Jol should be required to answer. Fulham could have done with his experience and leadership in the back line.
In the end, the result was not damning enough to cost Martin Jol is job, but only just. Craven Cottage used to be the fortress from which modest Fulham sides ensured their survival in the Premier League, but on recent evidence, that template is well and truly a thing of the past.
Football is a weak link game. Teams do not survive in the Premier League by scoring at the feet of their superstars. Rather, success is determined by a side's ability to cover for its weakest players and prevent the opposition from finding the net too freely and frequently.
Fulham are in desperate need of a defensive revival.