There doesn’t appear to be a sentence that can correctly convey the crushing sense of disappointment that ended this afternoon’s match. Manchester United had to settle for a share of the spoils with the Premier League’s bottom club after Darren Bent’s stoppage time equaliser gave Fulham a point. Not that Fulham played badly, of course; it’s just that they were utterly dominated, coped with a league record of 81 crosses and scored with two out of their three opportunities. As indictments of the Moyes era go, this was perhaps the most damning so far.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the man charged with taking United’s training sessions for the last five years before Sir Alex Ferguson’s exit was able to plot such a course for his side, but Rene Meulensteen needed little tactical nous to escape Old Trafford with something to show for his efforts; just a penalty area full of committed players. From the off, United dominated possession and found themselves unable to make any serious advances on Maarten Stekelenburg’s goal. Crosses were swatted away with worrying ease, with Fulham content to soak up the pressure in the face of such predictability. In that sense, Steve Sidwell’s strike just before the first half’s midway point shouldn’t have been so surprising, but seeing Lewis Holtby’s delightful ball evading both Juan Mata and Darren Fletcher so easily to allow Sidwell to touch home still proved deeply unsettling.
But, as has so often been the way of things this season, United continued to labour, seemingly undeterred. Robin Van Persie should have equalised shortly after having met Rafael’s searching cross but blazed over from close range in a rare incisive moment. The crosses simply kept coming and coming, some over-hit, some under but most never reaching a red shirt in a dangerous position. It said much that Fulham should have doubled their advantage before the first half was over, and United were grateful for Kieran Richardson’s mishit blast after the simplest of counter attacks.
Chances for the visitors dried up after the interval but they remained resolute in the face of United’s incredible persistence to an unsuccessful tactic. If there had been any pattern of success present, or any aerial presence to trouble Dan Burn or John Heitinga, then perhaps such dispiriting repetition would have made sense. Yet with such creative players on the pitch, you could count the number of clear-cut chances created with one hand, Wayne Rooney drawing a one-handed reflex save from Stekelenburg after Mata’s touch in a rare flourish.
Of course, when the breakthrough came from Robin Van Persie in the 78th minute, the relief was still tangible, the Dutchman touching in Mata’s cross from close range. Michael Carrick’s deflected strike two minutes later prompted an eruption of joy from Old Trafford, and wild scenes accompanied it. Yet nothing is as simple as that in this Moyes era, and such tight scorelines are simply ticking time bombs. The game entered five minutes of stoppage time with Fulham released from their shackles and leaving gaps that United were unable to expose, Van Persie chipping over with the visitors back-line suddenly disorganised. And, in a season that has seen Everton, Southampton, Sunderland and Swansea score late on, the full time whistle didn’t come quick enough. Darren Bent tapped in David De Gea’s wild parry from Richardson’s shot, providing a stunning finale to another dispiriting afternoon’s work.
Meulensteen spoke frankly of his old club’s tactics after the match: ”I thought the gameplan was quite straightforward – get it wide, get in in.” Perhaps, if allowed to stay in the job, David Moyes will find a team that such repetitions are thoroughly effective against, but such adherence against a team that hadn’t gained a single point against top-half opposition and one that United should clearly be beating cost them dearly today. The Scot looks out of his depth, and his charges look dispirited. Even during a season that many expected little from beyond a top four finish, Moyes is hurtling ever closer to a low that could cost him his job. Such ignominy, after being given a six-year contract, won’t be down to bad luck, either.