Who would have thought?
Credit has to go to Rene Meulensteen (And Ray Wilkins and Alan Curbishley?) for setting up the side to play the way they did. Nineteenth century football or not, the system deployed was designed to get a result, any result, and for a club wallowing in the cellar of the Premier League at the moment, a morale boosting draw is invaluable.
Fulham started the match absent a recognized striker and with many of the usual names nowhere to be seen, not even on the bench. Even optimistic supporters could only take a wait-and-see attitude when the side was announced, such was the shake up.
Deploying a team set up to be difficult to break down - and with many new names coming into the squad for the first time -in an away match to Manchester United is always, at the very least, a calculated risk. The pitch at Old Trafford is littered with the bones of sides that have set out to do just that and failed spectacularly. For much of the match, Fulham looked to be headed for precisely that fate.
In staying compact across the back four and relying on Kieran Richardson, Ryan Tunnicliffe, and later Steve Sidwell to deal with the flank space, Fulham conceded cross after cross after cross after cross into their own penalty area. In this system however, Fulham often had as many as six bodies in the box - and the superb Maarten Stekelenburg - to deal with the danger.
If Fulham were to score, a swift counter-attack seemed the only way, but initial opportunities to spring forward were extinguished either by slow build up play, or a wise decision to possess the ball and allow the back line to get out. Not conceding was clearly the most important point in the pre game talk.
On the two instances that Fulham did counter with purpose, the nous of Lewis Holtby was a thing to behold. The ball put in to Sidwell for the first goal and the patience to wait for Kieran Richardson's run on what should have been the second, are measures of Holtby's class and play-making credentials. How Tottenham deemed him surplus to requirements is beyond me, but thank God and the ghost of Michael Jackson's statue they did. If Fulham are to beat the drop, it will be his Jimmy Bullard-esque energy and vision that make it so.
For all the joy of a draw at Old Trafford and the ultimate success of the tactics Rene Meulensteen utilized, today's storyline could easily have been the disaster of one ill-advised substitution. Darren Bent was brought on at half time to replace Muamer Tankovic, who had until then proven rather effective as an outlet. Bent's introduction ushered in a prolonged period of pressure that essentially left Fulham playing a man down. Needing relief from the Red Devils' onslaught, Bent was ineffective in providing an outlet and seemed incapable of winning any sort of aerial duel agains the likes of Chris Smalling and Nemanja Vidic. The result was that the match fell into a predictable pattern of desperate clearances followed by wave upon wave of United attacks. After Robin Van Persie and Michael Carrick found the back of the Fulham net in the 78th and 80th minutes respectively, the script seemed to have been written.
It's only fitting that Darren Bent managed the most Darren Bent last gasp equalizer you'll ever see and saved his manager the blushes of having brought him on when he did. That sounds harsh, but I don't mean it to. It's simply an honest assessment that Bent was the right man from about the 80th minute on, but perhaps wasn't in minutes forty six through eighty. If he hadn't been on, perhaps all three points would have gone United's way. On the other hand, perhaps Fulham wouldn't have needed a 90th minute Darren Bent goal had he not been brought on when he did. And perhaps I'm splitting hairs.
Regardless the hypotheticals, credit has to go to the Fulham players who showed real character and a refreshing commitment to a clearly articulated system of play and didn't fold after United's second goal. Credit also to the manager(s) for having the sand and vision to field the XI they did. It's always easy to give credit in hindsight, especially after a positive result, but regardless the outcome, the effort and plan so painfully absent for much of the season were finally there. Tonight, it worked.
On to the next one.