Maxime Le Marchand: 'The Merchant' of doom for Fulham
Despite the odds being stacked against them, the home side started the game brightly and created some decent half-chances in the first few minutes. But after that, it was mostly smooth sailing for United, who ended up winning 3-0 thanks to excellent performances from Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial.
While Claudio Ranieri's side possess some really talented attacking players, it is their defensive performances which will ultimately determine whether or not they get relegated this season.
The worst performer on the pitch was their French defender Maxime Le Marchand. Signed from Nice in the summer, the 29-year-old has endured a torrid time in the English top flight so far.
It is no secret that Fulham have the worst defense in the league, and Le Marchand is at the heart of it. The Cottagers have conceded 58 goals from their 26 games so far. The team with the leakiest defense in the Premier League last season was Stoke City, and they conceded 68 goals in the entire season. Fulham are only 10 goals away from that mark, with 12 games to go.
In a team that is struggling defensively, one would expect the defenders to stick to the basics i.e. stay compact, maintain their shape, and not take unnecessary risks. Unfortunately, it didn't look like Le Marchand wanted to comply with this school of thought.
In the 7th minute, he tried to bring the ball forward from the back with 3 red shirts around him, and inevitably lost the ball to Paul Pogba. Even though United failed to score from that move, the warning signs were there.
And in the 14th minute, Fulham's worst fears were realized when Le Marchand had his pocket picked by Luke Shaw in a dangerous area. The resulting United move ended with a wonderful goal by Pogba, who beat Sergio Rico at his near post to give the visitors a 1-0 lead. 9 minutes later, Fulham's woes were compounded.
With right-back Denis Odoi caught upfield, they lost the ball in the middle of the park. Phil Jones played in Anthony Martial, who had taken up an excellent counterattacking position. Le Marchand found himself exposed in a perilous position.
With his compatriot running straight at him in full flight, he took the rash decision of dangling his left leg out in a weak attempt to stop him. Martial got past him with remarkable ease, and made it 2-0 with a superb curling effort.
Le Marchand's naivety had proved extremely costly for his team. And things would go from bad to worse for the Frenchman in the second half. After Cyrus Christie was brought on early after the break, Fulham switched to a back 5, with Le Marchand playing at the center, Tim Ream moving to the left center back position, and Odoi to the right.
In the 64th minute, Ander Herrera played a pass into the feet of striker Romelu Lukaku who was standing near the halfway line. Bizarrely, Le Marchand and his fellow center back Tim Ream were both in the left center back position. The two of them challenged Lukaku together, and almost ran into each other. But neither of them won the ball.
The Belgian striker came away with the ball, and ran at an exposed and disorganized Fulham defense. After entering the penalty area, he squared the ball to Juan Mata, and a recovering Le Marchand brought the Spaniard down as he attempted to turn away from him.
Referee Paul Tierney pointed to the spot without hesitation. Pogba dispatched the penalty with great composure to seal the victory. The damage could have been even greater for Fulham. Later on in the second half, Le Marchand inexplicably tried to head the ball square towards Denis Odoi near his own penalty area.
The ball was intercepted by Alexis Sánchez, and he only had the goalkeeper to beat. But Sergio Rico produced a good save, and Le Marchand's blushes were spared. The center back had an afternoon to forget, and doesn't seem to possess enough quality to thrive in the English Premier League.
The reality is harsh, and there is no escaping it. Fulham's defense is in a state of chaos. Players are unsure of their positions, and lack quality and spatial awareness. For most sides battling relegation, their struggle is due to a lack of goal scorers.
But that is not the case at Fulham, who possess talented attacking players like Mitrović, Schürrle, and Vietto. But if their defensive woes continue, Claudio Ranieri's side will need a miracle to stay clear of the bottom three places at the end of May.