Manchester United’s new era starts with familiar failings and another Old Trafford defeat

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

After 11 years of misery, in Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s words, came 90 minutes of still more misery. New era, same Manchester United? A first defeat to Fulham at Old Trafford since 2003 made for an inauspicious start after the new co-owner’s investment was confirmed. Turning United around was, Ratcliffe had rationalised, more than just a case of flicking a light switch. Repeat this result – and wretched performance – against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup and Manchester City, however, and the danger is that the lights go out on their season.

It is safe to say that Ratcliffe’s three-year plan did not begin quite like this. Nor, indeed, Erik ten Hag’s bid to persuade his new employer that he is the man who can restore United to the summit of the division, let alone the global game. He stared on, grim-faced as Fergie time was instead commandeered by another Alex, Iwobi rewarding Fulham’s excellence with a historic victory. Meanwhile, Ten Hag’s longest winning run of the season came to an abrupt halt, but if those five triumphs were flawed, all containing warning signs, this was dreadful. Rather than accelerating into the future, United rewound time to autumn and its series of losses at Old Trafford.

The watching Sir Dave Brailsford witnessed a host of problems. It was no surprise Calvin Bassey’s opener came from a corner, as United struggled to defend set-pieces all afternoon. But they looked susceptible in open play, too, making Alex Iwobi appear unplayable long before his 97th-minute winner. Their now-familiar games of transitions left them without control and liable to be counter-attacked. Even as Ten Hag fielded his first-choice midfield, of Bruno Fernandes, Kobbie Mainoo and Casemiro, United didn’t really have a midfield. They rarely do.

Without Luke Shaw and Lisandro Martinez, they struggled to build form the back. In attack, their momentum and scoring habit seemed to disappear when Rasmus Hojlund was injured in training. The in-form forward spent his afternoon rather nearer Bryan Robson than Marcus Rashford, sat in the directors’ box. The physical frailty of their players remains one of United’s many issues, and Casemiro went off with an ice pack on his head.

But the loss of a striker had an impact, even if Fulham are entitled to point out they won without their premier defensive midfielder, Joao Palhinha, and first-choice centre-forward, Raul Jimenez. Without Hojlund and his recently acquired goal-a-game habit, Ten Hag arguably erred in his attempt to display faith in youth, with Omari Forson ineffective on his first Premier League start. Yet he was an indictment of Ten Hag’s greatest error: the £85m misfit Antony eventually came on in the 99th minute, after Forson, Bruno Fernandes and Amad Diallo had all played on the right wing.

Minus Hojlund, United did not attempt a shot for 27 minutes until Alejandro Garnacho’s potentially goalbound effort was headed away by Antonee Robinson. Leno saved a second shot from Garnacho and Fulham had two players booked for fouling him. Yet, in its own way, it was damning that defenders were United’s likeliest scorers. Diogo Dalot clipped the post with a whipped shot while a centre-back equalised in the 89th minute.

United had glimpsed respite, perhaps even a great rescue act, when Harry Maguire levelled, tucking in from close range after Bernd Leno rather limply parried Bruno Fernandes’ shot. The United captain bombarded the Fulham goal with late efforts. His predecessor, though, lost the ball for Fulham’s decider, Maguire allowing Adama Traore to speed clear and set up Iwobi, who placed a shot beyond Andre Onana.

For Fulham, who led in two matches at Old Trafford last season and lost both, there was a belated sense they had their reward. This could have been more emphatic. Onana, in his best form of an underwhelming season, and the woodwork denied Fulham in the first half. Maguire escaped with a caution for a clumsy lunge at Sasa Lukic.

Fulham, who had arrived with a mere four points from their 11 previous away games, took all three and excelled from the off. The elusive Iwobi twice shot wide. Onana clawed away a downward header from Rodrigo Muniz after a corner while, when Iwobi found the Brazilian, he swivelled a shot against the post.

Calvin Bassey blasted Fulham ahead (AP)
Calvin Bassey blasted Fulham ahead (AP)

The breakthrough came instead from Bassey: he met a corner and while his volley struck teammate Timothy Castagne, it fell obligingly for the summer signing to lash a shot into the roof of the net.

If manager Marco Silva seemed to err by bringing on a third centre-back, in Issa Diop, which merely encouraged United to attack further, while removing the threat of Harry Wilson, he also introduced Traore, who sped clear to set up the winner.

Beaten by United’s injury-time goals at Craven Cottage this season and last, Fulham could savour the sense the tables were turned. This was entirely merited. They had ambition and energy but also the coherent gameplan United seemed to lack.

It was a first defeat in 2024 for Ten Hag, but a colossal setback nonetheless.