How Manchester United’s French connection sliced Fulham apart
Manchester United entered the game on Saturday against Fulham undefeated in 10 matches in all competitions. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer clearly looked to rotate some of his team ahead of the key clash against Paris Saint-Germain in midweek Champions League action, and this should have given an opportunity for a relegation threatened Fulham side.
Claudio Ranieri’s side are languishing in 19th place, seven points away from safety, and time is running out for them to secure Premier League football for next season. While Fulham may have had an opportunity for an upset, especially after starting strong, by the end of the match Manchester United completed a rather routine-looking 3-0 victory.
Manchester United made six changes over the side that beat Leicester City 1-0 away the previous weekend. Romelu Lukaku started up front for the visitors, with Anthony Martial returning to the left wing after not starting since the 19 January victory over Brighton & Hove Albion. Looking forward to the Champions League clash on Tuesday meant that Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard started the match on the bench, and Victor Lindelof was left out of the squad entirely.
Fulham shifted from a 3-4-3 in the 2-0 defeat last weekend against Crystal Palace to a 4-2-3-1 in this match. The Tinkerman made only two changes to his side, leaving Tom Cairney on the bench and replacing him with Atletico Madrid loanee Luciano Vietto. Former Chelsea player Andre Schurrle also came back into the lineup on the right side.
Keys to the match
We are going to show in this analysis how Manchester United were able to withstand a strong start by Fulham before eventually taking advantage of some flaws in the hosts’ defending to secure a rather easy victory. We will see how Dennis Odoi’s struggles at right-back allowed Anthony Martial to have a man-of-the-match performance with one goal and one assist.
Despite starting strong, Fulham show usual defensive flaws
Claudio Ranieri’s side started this match the stronger side, with a chance to take the lead within the first two minutes after a quick counter-attack. After a free kick deep in the Fulham end, an errant header by Ander Herrera allowed Fulham to counter quickly. Andre Schurrle delivered an excellent cross to the back post, only for Luciano Vietto to pull the shot wide. If Fulham had scored the opening goal, this might have led this match to develop in a different way.
Fulham set up to sit in a medium block and counter quickly through quick direct passes to the wide players in Schurrle and former Liverpool player Ryan Babel. In the first 10 minutes, they had three decent scoring chances but were unable to take them. As we can see from the graphic below, most of the passes into Schurrle were long direct passes that allowed Fulham to get up the pitch quickly.
The west London side looked to counter quickly, but this was dependent on them defending well. This has been beyond Fulham all season, as they have conceded 58 goals in the Premier League this season, the worse defensive record in the league. Tim Ream and Maxime Le Marchand have struggled all season. Frenchman Le Marchand had a poor match as he was repeatedly drawn out of position defensively. He was also guilty of holding on the ball too long, which allowed Manchester United to press Fulham in their own half.
Martial targets Odoi
It seems that a key part of Manchester United’s plan in this match was for Anthony Martial to attack Fulham right-back Denis Odoi. Lately, Odoi has played as a right-sided centre-back in a back three for Ranieri’s side and now he was being asked to play as a more orthodox full-back.
He was guilty for Manchester United’s first goal, as shown in the images below. He steps up the pitch to challenge Paul Pogba on the ball, allowing space for Martial to receive an excellent pass by Pogba and run into the box. Also evident from this image is the poor position of Le Marchand as he was also caught up the pitch, leaving both of Fulham’s right-side defenders out of position with nobody to cover for them.
This was a pattern of play that would repeat itself throughout the match, as Martial was able to take advantage of poor defensive positioning on the part of Odoi to receive the ball, and run at speed towards a suspect Fulham back line. He would do the same again later when he scored Manchester United’s second goal.
United beat Fulham at their own game
After Manchester United took the lead in the 14th minute, they settled into a deeper defensive block and invited Fulham onto them. This allowed the Red Devils to play on the counter-attack, while also reducing Fulham’s chances to strike on the counter. As a result, Fulham had a bit more of the ball, but it was largely sterile possession kept in front of United’s block, as the visitors waited for a mistake and the chance to release Anthony Martial down the left side.
As shown in the images below, we see United set up in a medium block in their own half. Fulham are unable to get players between the lines, and end up switching the ball side to side across their back line. Eventually, Fulham try to play the ball into Aleksandar Mitrovic but the ball is won by Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic.
They sweep the ball forward quickly for Martial, who is in space behind Odoi again. He dribbles the ball up the pitch for 70 yards before applying a clinical finish to give Manchester United a 2-0 lead after only 25 minutes.
Solskjaer will be happy with the result, taking all three points while allowing him to rest some key players ahead of the Champions League. Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard weren’t required, while he was also able to remove Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial after 75 minutes. This was just the type of victory he must have hoped for ahead of PSG’s visit.
As for the home side, this leaves their chances of Premier League survival even more perilous. Seven points adrift with only 10 matches left to play, Claudio Ranieri needs to solve his side’s defensive deficiencies if he is to have any chance.
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