Much of the discussion at True Faith Towers (read: the WhatsApp group) this week was the imperative for Steve Bruce to play the strongest possible side against Fulham, with a huge week looming. Points needed bagging and momentum bolstering ahead of some tough league fixtures and a huge Cup Quarter Final.
To the Head Coach’s credit, the starting lineup saw players at least played in their correct positions (a given at just about any other club, but so it goes at Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United) with Jacob Murphy and Jeff Hendrick dropped from false positions on the right and Paul Dummett and DeAndre Yedlin brought in from the cold and reinstated to the wide defensive roles. But for the prosecution, Ryan Fraser – one of the few to emerge from Leeds with much credit – and Dwight Gayle started here on the bench, while Sean Longstaff undeservedly kept his place. The squad is still wracked with COVID, but does Steve Bruce know his strongest eleven? Who knows.
In any case, there should have been enough here to beat a lacklustre Fulham, who while slightly improved of late, have only won once in six.
As is their wont, United started slowly, with Fulham dominating possession and little going forward for United. That said, Karl Darlow didn’t have a huge amount to do, thanks to profligate shooting on Fulham’s part and fairly decent defensive organisation from United – until the 42nd minute at least when a header back into the box following a corner wasn’t cleared and Matt Ritchie’s face helped it over the line.
For once, the corner flag was untroubled by a Matt Ritchie goal and remained fluttering in the Saturday night breeze.
At half time, going in one-down was entirely apt. United had been woeful going forward, picking up where they left off against Leeds. Even against a side as poor as Fulham, you can’t play that passively and expect to pick up points in this league. Utterly abject. Again. And yet entirely deserved.
The second half started slightly better, with the possession stats reversed and United beginning to push and probe Fulham. Yedlin in particular putting some nice balls into the box. While it looks like he’s on his way out of St James’ Park, we’ve missed him something chronic in these times of square-peg-round-hole right back picks.
But the moment that defined the match came around an hour-in: a debatable penalty won smartly by Callum Wilson. Some claim it was clear-cut, I’m not so sure. Regardless, a lengthy VAR check saw the Fulham defender sent off before Wilson tucked away yet another from the spot this season. Bruce’s patented luck, yet again.
Advantage Newcastle, then. But a lack of killer instinct meant that United never capitalised. Instead we were subjected to interminable passing around the midfield and defence without anyone willing to force the issue. We never looked like scoring from open play against eleven men, and the situation was the same against ten.
To their credit, Fulham organised themselves well, but for the second time in a week, we never had control of a game against newly-promoted opposition. Another woeful display, and three much needed points went begging.
This is a side that desperately needs creativity, purpose and identity as well as investment. It’s going to be a long old season if this is what’s going be served up between now and the summer.