Dismal defeat to Fulham shows magnitude of Man United rebuild

MANCHESTER, England — Manchester United started the week with new minority owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe declaring that he has arrived to “knock Manchester City off their perch” and ended it with a defeat at home to a team with one of the worst away records in the Premier League.

If ever there was a day to remind Ratcliffe, the 71-year-old British billionaire, how big a job he faces as United’s part-owner, then this was it.

Only bottom side Sheffield United had won fewer points on the road this season, but Fulham were still able to win 2-1 at Old Trafford. It was their first away win since August and, having been the better team for the most of the game, it was deserved.

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United looked like they had salvaged an unlikely point through Harry Maguire‘s 89th-minute equaliser but then conspired to concede Fulham’s winner in the seventh minute of stoppage time.

It has, at times, been a calamitous campaign for United and manager Erik ten Hag and this was yet another example. Ratcliffe wasn’t in the stands but his man-on-the-ground Sir Dave Brailsford was. It was a performance that will do nothing to convince those who will now decide which direction the club takes that Ten Hag is the man to lead the new era.

Ten Hag is adamant that he is.

“You have to see the bigger picture and the bigger picture looks very good,” Ten Hag insisted. “We have to get the injuries back then we will be more in balance and also strengthen the squad in the transfer windows.

“There are, coming up, many good players and high-potential players, so definitely we are going in the right direction. So when they are available we have a very good team.”

The issue, though, is whether Ratcliffe and Brailsford are on the same page and it won’t help that the first game since confirmation of the partial takeover was up there with United’s worst performances of the season.

Fulham, without their best player, João Palhinha, because of suspension, dominated the first half and created two good chances for Alex Iwobi. Rodrigo Muniz, a handful up front, hit the post and former United midfielder Andreas Pereira brought a good save from André Onana.

It was a poor first half from Ten Hag’s team but, somehow, they managed to get even worse after the break, and when Calvin Bassey scored his first Fulham goal to put the visitors ahead, it was no surprise.

United only decided to start playing in the final minutes and scrambled an equaliser through Maguire. They looked the most likely to find a winner in nine minutes of injury time, but their defensive vulnerability was exposed. Substitute Adama Traoré skipped past Maguire and passed for Iwobi to score and hand Fulham their first win at Old Trafford for 21 years.

As the final whistle went, Alejandro Garnacho, United’s best player, lay face down in the turf and the Fulham fans began to sing, “How s— must you be, we’re winning away.”

It needed a last-gasp winner, but it certainly wasn’t a smash-and-grab.

“It is clear in my opinion the better team on the pitch won the game,” Fulham boss Marco Silva said. “We are the team that created the most chances, that played better and tried to win most of the moments of the game.”

It was a damning assessment.

As he has done so often this season, Ten Hag was keen to point to his growing injury list as the major factor in United’s poor season. Against Fulham, he was without Luke Shaw and Rasmus Højlund, as well as long-term absentees Lisandro Martínez and Mason Mount.

It meant the Dutch manager was forced to pick Victor Lindelöf at left-back and hand a full debut to 19-year-old forward Omari Forson. It didn’t help that Casemiro left the game early because of a head injury but then Fulham weren’t at full strength either because of Palhinha’s suspension and injuries to Raúl Jiménez and Willian.

“We don’t have a left full-back,” Ten Hag said. “Then the drop out of Casemiro, a big drop out. Licha Martinez [is out] but still we have players in the squad and still today we could win this game and we should.”

After a five-game winning run was halted by Fulham, this is now a very big week for Ten Hag.

On Wednesday, he has got an FA Cup fifth round tie with Nottingham Forest before a derby against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Two positive results and Ten Hag can continue to claim, with some merit, that he should get the first shot at success under Ratcliffe. But two further setbacks to go with a nightmare display against Fulham and his words will begin to feel very empty.

Ratcliffe’s arrival has put everyone on notice that they are fighting for their place on the journey to get back to the top of English football. Less than a week after Ratcliffe’s investment finally got the green light, Ten Hag’s audition got off to the worst possible start.