Football Features

No Hojlund? Big problem for Man Utd as Fulham leave Old Trafford with rare away win

By Harry Edwards

Published: 17:17, 24 February 2024

Manchester United’s perfect league run in February was brought to a screeching halt as they were beaten 2-1 by Fulham at Old Trafford.

The big news in the build up to the game was the injury to Rasmus Hojlund, which Erik ten Hag put down to high intensity training, ruling the Dane out for two or three weeks.

Ten Hag went on to claim he had tried to bring a striker in during the winter transfer window, and Man Utd were linked to the likes of Timo Werner, but nothing materialised.

“That is very naive,” Ten Hag said when a suggestion of poor squad planning in the summer was made. “Strikers are not cheap. We thought, we had options.

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“But when it [Martial injury] develops, I wanted to bring in a striker in the winter, but it was not possible. And, similar, was the problems we already had with FFP in the summer.

“There was real shortage on good options. That is why we were very happy to sign Rasmus Hojlund, who is a player at the level of Manchester United.”

Against Fulham, Marcus Rashford started as the striker with youngster Omari Forson getting his first Premier League start on the right, Bruno Fernandes through the middle and Alejandro Garnacho on the left. But Hojlund’s absence was missed.

This was a striker who had scored seven goals in his past six Premier League games, finding hot form after a slow start to life in the Premier League. And it’s become so clear how much of Man Utd’s play revolves around Hojlund.

Without the Dane in the starting XI, it took Man Utd 26 minutes to have their first shot, a Garnacho effort that was cleared off the line. In that same period, Fulham had had five shots, with two hitting the target. Rashford just couldn’t get into the game and he wasn’t linking up with his teammates, ending the match with just 27 touches, the fewest of any starters for either side — and he played the full 90 minutes.

Although Man Utd ended the first half with eight shots, a lot of them were empty chances, not really testing Bernd Leno in the Fulham goal. Fulham also had eight shots in the first half and had the first attempt of the second half, within the first two minutes.

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Five minutes later, Ten Hag looked to his bench for game changers, but his decision was one that left Man Utd fans fed up. Scott McTominay and Christian Eriksen were brought on for Casemiro and Forson, whose full debut wasn’t bad.

McTominay moved into the No.10 role with Fernandes pushed out wide to the right, where he doesn’t have as much impact on matches. Although McTominay has often been the match-winner from McTominay as a result of playing in an advanced position, this change felt weird — especially with Eriksen now holding alongside Kobbie Mainoo.

The game did change, but not in the way Ten Hag would have hoped. With 25 minutes left to play, Fulham got the goal their attack deserved. Rodrigo Muniz led the way with four shots, but four other players managed at least two, including Calvin Bassey.

Both of Bassey’s shots came within a few seconds of each other, the first actually blocked by his teammate Timothy Castagne, but the second he powered past Andre Onana to put Fulham 1-0 up.

Man Utd piled on the pressure as Fulham sat back, with Ten Hag going all out, bringing Amad Diallo on for Mainoo — putting everything on the line. Growing in control, the equaliser did finally come for Man Utd through Harry Maguire. The centre-back showed really good hold up play inside the box before overhitting his cross. He stayed in the box and was in the right place at the right time when Bernd Leno pilled Fernandes; shot to equaliser.

If anyone was going to get a winner, it looked like it would be Man Utd, having five more shots in the five minutes after Maguire’s equaliser. But then came the blow. Fulham had a throw in deep in their own half, but then exploited Man Utd’s high line with a run from Adama Traore. The Spaniard made his way to the edge of the area before finding Alex Iwobi, whose finish was tucked into the bottom left corner.

“To be a goal behind, I thought our reaction was brilliant especially in the last 30 minutes and when we equalised probably only one team going to win it,” Maguire told BBC Sport after the match.

“We were probably naive in the end by throwing too many bodies forward and getting done on the counter attack.

“We’ve been on a good run of form and came into the game we were confident.”

The damage was done and Fulham’s first win over Man Utd since December 2009 was secured — and their first win at Old Trafford since October 2003! It was also Fulham’s first away win in the Premier League since the opening weekend of the season, ending a run of 11 games without victory.

Of course, Fulham fans will celebrate into the night, but the inquest at Man Utd will dominate headlines. It was Man Utd’s 10th league defeat of last season, now more than they suffered in the entirety of the 2022/23 campaign.

But Man Utd should be used to losing Premier League 10 games in a season; they have now done so in five seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, having not done so once during his reign. They have also lost as many league games this season as they did in Sir Alex’s final two seasons combined. It’s not good reading for Man Utd fans and Ten Hag.