Fulham 1 Manchester United 3
It’s hard to imagine a better illustration of the two sides of United this season than this match, where a masterclass of attacking football in the first half was followed by a faltering second 45 minutes in which the Reds hung on to a game they ought to have won with far greater ease.
United played their best football of the season early in the game. With Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley quickly securing control of the midfield, they were 3-0 up after half an hour. Rooney showed great awareness, not to mention a significant degree of selflessness, to pick out Valencia for the first, before Januzaj harassed Parker into an error to set up Van Persie with a beautifully weighted pass from which the striker crashed the ball home. Van Persie turned provider for the third, again springing Fulham’s primitive attempt at an offside trap to move into space and cross from the right to find Rooney, who slotted home a goal that was much deserved in another fine individual performance.
As in the defeat of Norwich on Wednesday, this was a rampant United, passing at pace and, at three off, invariably picking off the attacks of ordinary opponents at ease, revelling in the rare luxury this season of having established sufficient early dominance to sit back and play on the break. When they did, they found Rooney and Van Persie mesmerising the Fulham defence with intelligent movement while Januzaj provided a constantly willing foil wide on the left.
Three goals to the good and with a few players clearly going into the interval carrying knocks, Moyes understandably made the decision to make three changes at half-time, and United became, both literally and figuratively, a different side. While Valencia covered Rafael’s right back berth well enough and used it as a platform to make some penetrating runs from deep, elsewhere the changes transformed United into the nervous, uncertain side we’ve seen too often this season.
Some credit rightly goes to Fulham for making more of a game of it in the second period, but United certainly contributed to the home team’s greater purpose. Januzaj was suddenly isolated out wide as central midfield was surrendered, Fellaini coming on for Cleverley and looking uncertain on the ball, failing to move in on quickly enough and leading to Rooney being forced to come back and retrieve it too often. With it, United’s shape was quickly lost. It was a significant deflection off Rooney that gave Fulham their goal, although no criticism will be attached to a player who was one of the few who contributed magnificently for the full ninety minutes. Later he would be brought back to fortify a midfield that was being outrun by a revitalised home team, allowing Januzaj a central position and a chance to see some of the ball again.
Ultimately, United saw the game out successfully but there were some all too familiar alarm bells ringing in that second period. I remain a firm believer that Tom Cleverley didn’t get the credit he deserved last season and after half-time the gap he left in midfield was all too evident and what looked set to be an easy victory for a United back to their old selves became something far less comfortable. While we should rightly celebrate a fourth successive win and ten goals in three games, the realist in me looks forward to Arsenal and Merzut Ozil next weekend still with a certain degree of trepidation.