It threatened to be a bleak denouement to a marathon run of fixtures since the resumption of club football in late December after a World Cup played in the northern hemisphere’s winter. Erik ten Hag’s side seemed on the brink of an underwhelming FA Cup exit on their own turf, just as the net appears to be tightening in the battle for a top-four place in the Premier League.
The red flags were present in United’s performance.
In the absence of the suspended Casemiro, the home team toiled for long periods against quarter-final opponents Fulham. They struggled to progress the ball through midfield. Scott McTominay and Marcel Sabitzer always showed to receive the ball from the defence, while Harry Maguire too often was hesitant or sloppy in his distribution.
McTominay was substituted just before the hour mark, with United a goal down, while Maguire’s dallying on the ball drew audible groans from the home crowd. He had been booked for a clumsy challenge in the first half and conceded one particularly daft foul by his team’s own corner flag in the second half from which Aleksandar Mitrovic very nearly doubled the Londoners’ lead.
Bruno Fernandes, meanwhile, provided his familiar repertoire of hand-flapping and exasperation as United were outmanoeuvred.
Fulham had the chances to seal the tie, and David de Gea bailed out his team-mates with the same speed and urgency that financiers have produced this weekend to secure Credit Suisse.
Ten Hag’s counterpart Marco Silva claimed afterwards that Fulham were “clearly the best team on the pitch”, and he was correct.
As the match crossed 70 minutes, United supporters may have feared their team were running out of gas ahead of the international break. And that would in many ways be logical.
Since resuming their season three days after Argentina’s triumph in Qatar, United have played midweek fixtures for 13 weeks in a row. They have a further four of those, at least, to play after this two-week pause in the club calendar, while postponed Premier League fixtures at Brighton and at home to Chelsea still need to be slotted in. Should they go all the way in the Europa League, quarter-finalists United may be playing every midweek from April until the end of the season in late May.
The concerns in this performance, though, went beyond mere energy.
Ten Hag would have been asked about the crowd’s response to the club captain Maguire; why his team struggle so much without Casemiro; and quite how Wout Weghorst has managed to start all 18 games since joining the club on loan from Burnley in January.
And then, mostly due to Fulham’s self-implosion and partially due to United’s brutal opportunism, the tie flipped on its head.
It would be wrong to attribute this solely to the visiting team. United executed a searing counter-attack, with Antony and Jadon Sancho making composed decisions in the final third. They also used the momentum provided by Fulham’s three red cards (two for players, one for head coach Silva) to complete their comeback in timely fashion. Fernandes demonstrated his class, first from the penalty spot and then with a belting finish to cap the victory in added time.
In the cold light of day, the reservations listed above about this team will be re-examined.
Maguire, in particular, appears painfully short of what Ten Hag seeks in a central defender. The performance of Lisandro Martinez in the Englishman’s long-preferred position of left centre-back — all well-timed challenges and midfield-splitting passes — only served to highlight his skipper’s inadequacies.
Yet perception is everything, and United will spend the international break third in the Premier League, in the semi-finals of an FA Cup, and in the last eight of the Europa League. Since the World Cup, United have played 25 games in all competitions, winning 19, drawing four and losing only twice — to Arsenal and Liverpool.
The gravity of that 7-0 defeat at Anfield two weeks ago threatened to undermine the sense of progress but United have responded positively, in terms of results.
While regular United watchers and Ten Hag himself will recognise that results have often exceeded the imperfections of their performances, with helter-skelter moments endured in several games recently against Leeds, West Ham and Southampton, there must be excitement as United enter the final months of Ten Hag’s debut campaign. There may be two more trips to Wembley in the FA Cup, with a Manchester derby looming in the final on June 3 if United can overcome Brighton in next month’s semis, while the fans may have three more Europa League voyages to enjoy, including the May 31 final in Budapest, Hungary.
So, make no mistake, United’s outcomes under Ten Hag are ahead of schedule.
None of this is to suggest the Dutchman is fully content with his team’s progress.
In Sunday’s post-match press conference, he spoke positively of his team’s “character, determination and belief” and he was encouraged to see his team resuscitate an ailing situation by improbably coming from behind, just as they did recently against Barcelona, Leeds and West Ham.
Asked by The Athletic the extent to which, stylistically, this is an “Erik ten Hag” team, he said: “I am happy and pleased with the performances, but I see a lot of room for improvement on the ball. Today was an example. We have to show more composure on the ball, we have to recognise where the overloads are and use this to attract opponents and stay more on the ball.
“In attacking transitions, we can definitely do better, we can get more benefit from it. I think (we can improve our) defensive transition and especially in recoveries.
“And then in big games against Liverpool and Manchester City, we got beaten and we got really beaten, so we have to show more personality. So there is a lot to improve. But I am happy with the development we have made.”
But he also said his team are “in the position we want to be”, by which he means competing for trophies, having already lifted the Carabao Cup last month. He also said the momentum of winning provides fuel to go again when the matches come every three or four days. They will need it.
Energy and squad depth may be an issue for United as this campaign progresses, with injuries and suspensions to key players probably the greatest threat to their aspirations.
Consider, for example, that top-four rivals Newcastle United (who are three points behind them) have only 12 games to play in all competitions this season and Tottenham Hotspur (one point adrift) have 10 while Ten Hag’s team, if they go all the way in both the Europa League and FA Cup, have 19 games left.
Should they play all 19, this may yet prove to be one of United’s most famous seasons.
(Top photo: Erik ten Hag; by Michael Regan via Getty Images)