How Fulham beat Manchester United at Old Trafford for the first time in 21 years


There was to be no sting in the tail for Fulham this time.

Trips to Old Trafford have felt like a pilgrimage to purgatory in recent seasons. The wounds of Fulham’s FA Cup defeat here in March last year, when Fulham led 1-0 with 20 minutes remaining before a red-card-tainted collapse, are still raw and were not aided by another defeat two months later when, once again, Fulham took the lead only to leave the ground with nothing.

But on Saturday, it flipped. 

For the first time in 21 years, across 16 attempts, Fulham won at Old Trafford. It was their first win on the road in the league since the opening day of the season against Everton, yet this was no fortuitous smash-and-grab. This was a deserved victory, Fulham’s most complete away performance of the season, and it was sealed in the 97th minute — the latest winning goal Fulham have scored in the top flight since Opta started counting in 2006.

It was a famous win and one that was smartly constructed, too, in the face of some adversity. Fulham were missing Raul Jimenez and Willian through injury — the last time that happened, they lost by an aggregate of 5-0 against Bournemouth and Burnley — as well as Joao Palhinha, who was serving the first of a two-game suspension.

So, how did Marco Silva pull it off? 


Controlling midfield without Palhinha

Silva’s side normally struggle without Palhinha, but at Old Trafford, they looked comfortable. 

Rather than attempt to replace Palhinha like for like, Silva shuffled the pack and brought in Sasa Lukic and Harrison Reed. The duo complement each other — Lukic is composed on the ball and Reed brings intense energy — but Silva also changed the team’s build-up in possession. 

“We gave more freedom to Andreas Pereira,” said Silva. “Without Joao, who can cover big areas on the pitch, we tried to be compact.

“We changed our build-up, with two midfielders instead of one (Lukic and Reed). Both did very good work and we won that battle, which is really important. We pushed Alex Iwobi inside as well. It was to try and win that battle in the middle and the players did that.”

It was effective. Fulham managed 17 attempts on goal and Pereira created five chances in the match, the most by a Fulham player away in this fixture since Luis Boa Morte, now Silva’s assistant, in August 2006. Pereira, along with Harry Wilson and Iwobi, enjoyed plenty of space between the lines against a flat United midfield.

Fulham had a narrower setup, preferring to move centrally rather than encouraging wide overlaps.

Normally, Silva’s two central midfielders will drift over to either flank to work ‘wide triangles’ with the full-back and winger. You can see how that changed through their average position maps below, where wingers Iwobi (No 22) and Harry Wilson (8) are closer to the centre circle and both full-backs sit deeper against United…

fulhams average positions Manchester United e1708862314254

… as opposed to working wide triangles and playing closer to the touchline, like last week against Aston Villa (Willian, 20, and De Cordova-Reid, 14, played the wide roles here)…

fulham average positions against Villa February 17 1 e1708863122409

Fulham congested central areas, with Iwobi following Diogo Dalot, who was ‘inverting’ from right-back into central midfield. Their off-ball work, led by Rodrigo Muniz and Pereira, who screened and harried impressively, stopped United from playing through the middle. They pushed United wide, where they could recover possession easily…

fulham force united wide

… or forced them to go long, where United lacked a focal point without Rasmus Hojlund and the Fulham defence were comfortable…

fulham force united long

United lacked any physical bite in midfield, too, and Fulham took full advantage. 


Iwobi and Bassey’s AFCON recovery

It is no coincidence that the last time Alex Iwobi and Calvin Bassey started for Fulham, they defeated Arsenal 2-1 at Craven Cottage.

That was back on New Year’s Eve and Silva’s side have missed the pair’s influence in the intervening weeks. They showed their value here by etching their names onto the scoresheet in the second half.

What was notable, though, is that the pair could quickly put their Africa Cup of Nations disappointment behind them. Both suffered the agony of losing a final just 13 days ago and, in Iwobi’s case, he was then subjected to a torrent of online abuse. 

“I had a chat with them, like all my players,” said Silva. “They played the final and it was a tough moment for them, even if they have to be proud even if they didn’t win the last game. Alex was slightly different from Calvin, from what happened. They know really well how important they are for us. This afternoon showed us how we missed them.”

Iwobi missed successive chances, but at the critical moment, he kept a cool head and scored a goal that will be remembered in Fulham folklore. Silva’s side have certainly benefited hugely from their quick reintegration.


Traore’s pace is box office. He is an uncontrollable whirlwind that, sometimes, might just win you a game. Saturday was that day.

In the closing stages of the game, tactics went out the window. “It’s almost impossible (to give instructions),” Silva said. “It has to come from the players to make the right decisions.”

go-deeper

Silva was relying on his team to thrive in the chaos. Traore has twice come close to making similar game-changing impacts from the bench this season, against Aston Villa and Arsenal. On both occasions, a lack of composure in the final third let him down. This time, though, he delivered. His excellent run was followed by the right pass for Iwobi to score the winner.

Traore has experienced a difficult season, with a hamstring issue limiting his minutes, but he has the ability to change any game. That makes him an asset and a joy to watch in full flight.


Redemption arcs for Lukic as well as Muniz?

Muniz is a changed man. His first Premier League goal against Burnley last month, just after Armando Broja had signed from Chelsea, has injected a huge dose of confidence into his system. Now, Muniz is playing like a top-flight centre-forward. Against United, he was a constant thorn in the sides of Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane, crafting out chances, such as his excellent turn and shot in the first half that hit the woodwork, as well as his involvement in freeing Traore for the winning goal. His work rate and threat are a key reason the absences of Jimenez and Willian were not so keenly felt.

Lukic made a mark, too. Doubts have been cast about his situation at Fulham after falling down the pecking order this season, but he responded in the best way on Saturday, thriving in a dominant midfield. His Fulham future may well have another chapter to it.

(Top photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)





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