Manchester United needed something special to break down Fulham at Old Trafford on Sunday. That was clear from the early stages, when Rene Meulensteen’s side set up like few others ever have at Old Trafford…or anywhere for that matter.
There is defending in numbers, and then there is what Fulham did against United. And ultimately it worked, with the Premier League’s bottom club getting an unlikely but well-deserved point when they had been completely battered for almost the entire match.
But in football, you get nowhere just knocking on the door. You need to knock the thing down or – if you are smart – find that one all-but-invisible gap and slot the ball through it.
United did not do that. They crossed…a lot! And time and again the Fulham defenders dealt with those crosses.
In the end United did score, twice, through a close-range Robin van Persie effort and a deflected shot from Michael Carrick. But those goals proved only a temporary reprieve to the struggles David Moyes and his men have experienced this campaign.
The United manager’s first substitution saw Adnan Januzaj replace Darren Fletcher, and straightaway there was a different feel to the game. The young Belgian stirring something in his teammates; something he has been doing all season.
But then came the double change that saw Antonio Valencia and Javier Hernandez replace Rafael and Ashley Young respectively.
Again, in the case of Valencia it was a smart move. With Rafael practically playing on the wing anyway it made sense to replace him with an actual winger. But Hernandez’s arrival made no sense.
And yes, I know he is a striker and United needed a goal. But they had van Persie and Wayne Rooney on the pitch, along with Januzaj and Juan Mata.
They had the players to score. What they did not have was a player to create.
When you have stuck 81 crosses into the box and scored with none of them it is probably wise to try a different tactic. Given the aerial strength of Fulham’s back-line, and the fact that they had grown so used to defending high balls for much of the game, surely the arrival of something different would have shaken things up.
Shinji Kagawa is that “something different”. He has not shone as many expected him to since he arrived from Borussia Dortmund. In fact United fans are probably coming to the conclusion that he never will. But Moyes should have thrown him on and told him to break down the Fulham defence in a way his teammates had clearly failed to.
What they lacked was not a goal-scorer, it was someone to feed that goal-scorer the ball.
In remaining on the bench yet again, surely Kagawa knows his time at Old Trafford is coming to an end. After all, that was a match made for him to change, if only he had been given the chance.
image: © Marcel Sigg