Bruno Fernandes salvaged Manchester United’s desperate situation in stoppage time to snatch a 1-0 victory at Fulham, but as recent weeks have shown, those wild scenes of jubilation are likely to only provide temporary relief. As in the words of Erik ten Hag, United’s current state remains largely “unacceptable”, but winning, as it so often does, can make controversy and a litany of problems disappear.
The Dutch manager’s words surrounding Marcus Rashford caused a stir heading into this contest. And while the performance prompted some questions, too, only for United’s late rally to bury them and yet more confusion surrounding Ten Hag’s selections.
Ten Hag’s scowl after Rashford’s “unacceptable” move to celebrate his birthday at a Manchester night spot, hours after their latest derby humiliation, heightened the pressure here, with the forward absent due to a late injury.
And amid the furious debate surrounding the culpability of this latest malaise at Old Trafford, it is difficult to know what to examine first. Namely, how a 35-year-old Jonny Evans and Harry Maguire, discarded by Ten Hag for so long, have not just found themselves starting for this club but now look assured of their places. The bench paints a grim picture, too, with Ten Hag attracting needless pressure in the shape of Sofyan Amrabat, Raphael Varane and Mason Mount, who saw Facundo Pellistri enter the fray ahead of him in the second half. Rashford was tucked a little further behind, hidden conspicuously beneath his cap and hood.
United is still not a meritocracy and the reasons behind certain decisions continue to remain a mystery. Much like Evans and Maguire, Scott McTominay’s role and the manager’s persistence with Diogo Dalot add further confusion. Ten Hag’s United line-up has been pieced together at an eye-watering sum north of £400m, and it once again lacked shape and any obvious gameplan.
But a revitalised Maguire immediately launched himself into the action, colliding with Rodrigo Muniz’s shoulder and leaving himself dazed and in a heap on the turf. The England centre-back appeared confused, and further debate will rage as to whether he should have continued.
It ensured an icy stare from Ten Hag back to the bench as Varane started to warm up.
Joao Palhinha, now committed long term to the Cottagers after flirting with Bayern Munich last summer, provided a warm welcome for Fernandes, clattering his compatriot to concede a dangerous free kick. And the hosts were almost punished on eight minutes: Christian Eriksen’s teasing delivery created havoc inside the Fulham box and Alejandro Garnacho lunged for the ball at the back post, squaring for the onrushing McTominay to bundle home.
But a badly needed tonic for Ten Hag was short-lived after VAR’s forensic examination. Maguire was positioned fractionally offside while impeding Muniz before the ball could reach Garnacho, with the home supporters’ delight sparking some life into this dreary contest.
Ridiculed for his petulant reaction to Manchester City’s Jeremy Doku last weekend, Antony endured a troubling first half and rarely found any relief. A tame effort to stop the rampaging Antonee Robinson down Fulham’s left exposed Aaron Wan-Bissaka. And the English full-back remained isolated with the Brazilian rarely venturing back towards his own goal at each turnover. A gleeful Willian surged down the left before seeing his shot blocked. And the former Chelsea winger’s tantalising delivery almost found Harry Wilson 10 yards from goal, only for Diogo Dalot, fresh from a wretched 45 minutes against Newcastle midweek, to desperately hook clear.
Part of United’s alarming collection of issues on the pitch was the freedom afforded to Fulham in midfield, despite heavy investment in that department. And Alex Iwobi exposed it when given room to gallop half the length of the pitch, eventually stumbling as the finish line approached, spraying his shot into the away fans behind the goal.
Marco Silva’s side were thriving in transition but also playing better football, with neat interplay between Robinson and Andreas Pereira slicing through United’s side. But credit to United’s resilience at least, their rearguard often bending but refusing to break.
The second half meandered in much the same way as the first, Fulham smartly advancing the ball into the final third but lacking that elusive precision.
That was until Wilson clattered the ball towards the top left corner, sending Andre Onana sprawling after beating the ball away for a corner. And the Cameroonian denied Fulham again moments later, punching Palhinha’s powerful shot away. Suddenly United were confronted with a hostile atmosphere as Fulham, roared on by their fans, neared a breakthrough.
Rasmus Hojland attracts sympathy amid this mess. The Dane’s tireless work to surge beyond the opposition’s backline often felt futile, with United badly lacking willing runners to profit from the space he so often creates with those runs.
Fulham’s profligacy started to breed doubt and United, perhaps acting on instinct alone, started to sense an opportunity.
And United seized all three points in fortuitous fashion. Two deflections and one more failed Fulham clearance saw Fernandes gather and take aim from the edge of the area. The United captain shuffled to his left before switching back to his right and burying a low finish that Leno got a hand to before it squirmed into the bottom right corner.
Three more points and still in touch with fourth, but the absurdity around United surely cannot continue for much longer. Let’s do it all over again in Copenhagen on Wednesday.