Manchester United are through to the semi-finals of the FA Cup, but they were dependent on three sendings off in a minute for Fulham to ensure it.
Well, Manchester United are through to the semi-finals of the FA Cup, but they needed both a literal and metaphorical helping hand from their opponents to get there. With twenty minutes to play of their quarter-final game against Fulham at Old Trafford, they were well and truly back to being stodgy old United, the version of the team which has shown itself to varying degrees but with increasing regularity in recent weeks. But then Fulham lost their minds, and now Wembley beckons again for Erik ten Hag’s team.
For the first twenty minutes, Fulham demonstrated exactly why Manchester United could ill afford to take their opponents lightly. Again and again, they got into dangerous attacking positions, especially wide, only for either the final ball to be lacking or for there to be no-one there ready to take advantage of it all. But there were also warnings at the other end of the pitch. In committing players forward there were gaps in behind the defenders. United broke encouragingly on a couple of occasions, but their finishing looked somewhat tame.
If Manchester United’s opening did look somewhat sluggish, then perhaps we can look to the calendar for something of an explanation. This was their 25th game in 88 days, a period during which they’ve been solidly playing every weekend and every midweek without interruption. And there would be no resting for the first names on the teamsheet on this occasion.
Under other circumstances, an FA Cup weekend might have been an appropriate point for Erik ten Hag to rest a few players. But when you’re at the quarter-final stage of the competition, have a slightly tricky-looking tie against opponents who have been playing well, and are still chasing a silverware double, these cup matches can’t really be treated as some form of an afterthought.
With this fixture congestion coming around a World Cup finals in this most unusual of seasons, United have been showing signs of fatigue in recent weeks. They’ve only won three of their last eight Premier League matches. Having got themselves into an extremely strong position in the Premier League – remember when they beat Manchester City and people were talking about whether they could even launch a late assault on the league title itself? – that talk has cooled quickly again in recent weeks.
Although a return to the Champions League come the end of this season does remain likely, the top two have since resumed their journey off into the distance at the top of the table. Even with a couple of games in hand on leaders Arsenal, the 19 points between the two teams is already too great a gulf to be able to bridge.
But those who were given an opportunity to prove themselves to Ten Hag really came up wanting. Wout Weghorst had one tame shot which was easily gathered by Bernd Leno. Jadon Sancho, who is starting to get to a point at which he needs a run of good performances when he’s given the opportunity, was again apparently on the pitch, as anonymous as he has appeared throughout much of the rest of the season. United did warm up as the first half progressed, but without really significantly testing the Fulham goal.
Harry Maguire, meanwhile, earned himself a yellow card which means he would miss the semi-final, should they get through, but by the time an hour had passed, those hopes looked as though they were starting to recede. It could hardly be said that Manchester United weren’t given warnings. Twice in the first five minutes of the second half, David de Gea was forced into making saves, first tipping over Antonee Robinson’s shot and then flicking away Willian’s attempt to curl the ball into the bottom corner.
There were limits to what De Gea could achieve to protect his goal, and five minutes in the game swivelled upon its axis when Andreas Pereira’s corner was flicked on by Issa Diop and swept in from six yards out at the far post by Aleksandar Mitrovic. In the melee of bodies around the penalty spot at the time that the kick was taken, Marcus Rashford got squished by two Fulham defenders, but after a not-insubstantial VAR delay the goal was allowed to stand.
Ten Hag’s response was to introduce Antony for Scott McTominay, a more attacking formation to try and take better control of the game in midfield. It didn’t yield any immediate improvement. Midway through the half, De Gea had to leap to pull off an outstanding save from Mitrovic’s header. The header came from a free-kick awarded as the result of a completely unnecessary foul from Maguire, who doesn’t help himself in his bids to clamber out of meme status.
Within the space of just a couple of minutes Fulham lost their heads, lost the match, and really only had themselves to blame for it all. Sancho rounded Leno but had his shot blocked on the line just inside the near post by Willian’s arm. The Fulham player signalled that he had left his arms down by his body, but this wasn’t terribly convincing. It took a lengthy VAR intervention, but the referee was persuaded by the replay and gave the kick. Willian was sent off for the handball, and Bruno Fernandes converted from the spot.
But this was only a tiny part of the story. Marco Silva was also sent off for his reaction to the referee going to check the screen, but worse still was the reaction of Mitrovic, who appeared to lose all sense of self-control and was eventually sent off, presumably for a combination of some considerable swearing in Serbian at the referee and then pushing him as his own players tried to push him away from getting into any further trouble.
All that good work, and it had been a lot of good work, undone by an almost complete breakdown in discipline which cost them so dearly. All they had to do was keep their cool. Even with the penalty to Manchester United having been given, they’d been by far the better of the two teams over the previous seventy minutes. A minute later, with Fulham’s discipline having all but completely vanished, Sancho fed Luke Shaw, whose cross was flicked in by Marcel Sabitzer for his first Manchester United goal.
A quadruple substitution and seven minutes of stoppage-time weren’t enough for Fulham to be able to drag themselves back into the game. To their credit, the rest of their players did keep going, but the two-player advantage was too great a hurdle to overcome. With ninety seconds of the stoppage-time still to play and space wide open on the left-hand side of the Fulham penalty area, Bruno Fernandes shot from an angle to put the result beyond any further doubt.
And when all is said and done, Fulham only have themselves to blame for their defeat. The manager hasn’t led by the example that he should in getting himself sent off. Mitrovic lost his head in a wholly unacceptable – but still very funny – manner which cost his team even more. Perhaps with ten players they might have been able to pull something from the fire. With nine, it became impossible, and Fulham supporters unhappy at the way in which they threw this away are right to feel that way. Manchester United are through to the next round, but they won without impressing on this occasion, and Brighton will have seen little to instil fear in them ahead of their Wembley meeting.