Manchester United go back to basics at Fulham with defensive platform key for Erik ten Hag

Manchester United go back to basics at Fulham with defensive platform key for Erik ten Hag

Just what Manchester United needed, and just how Manchester United would have most wanted it to happen.

In the midst of one of the club’s cyclical periods of obsessive introspection and all-consuming pessimism, up stepped a player who, more than any other, has lived up to the burden of past success that weighs heavy on the shoulders of United players.

Bruno Fernandes took the ball off his Portugal team-mate Joao Palhinha - the Fulham midfielder’s one error all game, perhaps all season - and twisted, turned, and squirmed the ball into the net via Bernd Leno’s desperate, sprawling hand. Erik ten Hag raised his arms, his job safe... at least for now.

If successive 3-0 defeats this week to bitter rivals Manchester City and then Newcastle were founded on spatial chasms in the Red Devils’ backline, this victory came courtesy of defensive solidity. It was a victory that never looked forthcoming, and a lot of the most memorable wins come that way.

Fulham manager Marco Silva spoke this week of the need to “write a new story”, after his side had thrice dominated United but thrice lost to them last season. This was the best performance of the four matches by the home side, yet United still snuck it again.

In days gone by, when their form was better and the mood less toxic, United might not have needed to rely quite so heavily on the aerial prowess of two centre-backs long deemed not good enough to wear the red shirt.

But after a chastening week for Ten Hag, it was back to basics for United. It had to be. Jonny Evans - whose nine years at United ended in 2015 - trained at the club this summer and signed a short-term deal. His partnership here with Harry Maguire was crucial to United’s smash-and-grab effort.

Maguire won almost every header he contested and played precise passes into the channels for Fernandes to control. Evans jockeyed and harried Fulham’s forward players. And there were many, with Silva naming his most attacking lineup of the season for the home side.

Willian, Harry Wilson and Palhinha had glorious chances for Fulham, all took them well, yet were all denied by Andre Onana. The Cameroon international is in some inspired form right now - a break from his difficult start to life at one of the world’s most scrutinised clubs.

Antony was OK, Christian Eriksen OK, Scott McTominay OK after seeing an early goal chalked off for offside. There was a lot of OK. But crucially there was a defensive base, provided by Maguire, Evans and Onana, from which to build from. Build from it they did.

Fernandes scraped the ball home. United scraped this.