This felt like something plucked from the past. Old Trafford had been a theatre of defeats, draws and late drama this season, but not this kind of victory.
It was the sort Alex Ferguson would recognise, when the visitors felt intimidated by the venue, failed to put up a fight and were beaten by half time. It was the first time Manchester United won by at least two goals at Old Trafford since March, the first since 2016 when they went 3-0 up before the break in a league game, and the first in 2018 when they scored four times against top-flight opponents.
“We need these performances more often,” Juan Mata said. “That is the Manchester United that we want to see.”
They were rampant. Not in a way to send shockwaves reverberating through the division, but at least affording a welcome change. “The team was a good combination of qualities,” Jose Mourinho said.
It was a performance full of positives, whether the irrepressible Marcus Rashford or the encouraging, emerging Diogo Dalot. Romelu Lukaku scored a belated first goal at Old Trafford for 252 days and, if it was the simplest of finishes, part of the striker’s art is getting in the positions to collect the seemingly easy goals.
The influential Mata brought up both a half-century of Premier League goals and assists in a display of laidback class.
Yet the wretched nature of their victims needs to be taken into account in any assessment. As the self-deprecating Fulham fans chorused: “You’re nothing special, we lose every week.”
An eighth defeat in 11 suggested Claudio Ranieri faces a huge task to keep them up. “I said to my players: the first-half [performance] is to be relegated,” the new manager said.
“It was a warm-up for us.”
A side without a clean sheet in the league were breached embarrassingly easily. Fulham may see themselves as a passing team, but they were simply passive.
It was an indictment that Nemanja Matic was permitted to stroke the ball around with ease and damning that they missed Calum Chambers in midfield, even though the Arsenal loanee is essentially a defender. The £30 million (Dh140m) club record buy Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa capped a miserable start to his Fulham career by collecting a second caution in a game when his team barely put in a tackle.
“My player touched only the ball,” Ranieri lamented. “It changed the game.”
Yet it had been irrevocably altered before then. The excellent Ashley Young delivered a memorable goal in a year. He jinked past Dennis Odoi and unleashed an unstoppable shot that nestled in the top corner. With Rashford tormenting Odoi, United ran riot on their left flank.
When the Englishman produced a fine cutback, Mata picked out the corner of the net with trademark calm. The accuracy of his shot was matched by the precision of his cross as he gave Lukaku a tap-in.
It was a restorative occasion for scorer and supplier alike. If each owed his place in the team to Anthony Martial’s hamstring problem, United did not miss their injured top scorer or, indeed, the unused substitute Paul Pogba.
“The players understand when we have 11 players sticking together we can be a much better team,” Mourinho said in what felt like another jibe at the demoted Frenchman. “When there is solidarity in the team, everyone giving their maximum, you attract more positive things.”
He guaranteed Pogba will start in Valencia on Wednesday. “He has to play with the same mentality as the team is playing,” Mourinho said.
Rashford’s attitude was excellent again and he got the goal his display merited when a shot from outside the box slipped through the culpable Sergio Rico’s hands. It was unfortunate for the Spaniard, who had twice parried Rashford’s well-struck long-range efforts. When the Englishman and Lukaku got into the box, he denied them.
Ander Herrera and Mata both shot wide.
“The first half was really good at every level,” Mourinho said. “The second half, I think Ranieri had a big responsibility.”
The Italian was decisive, making a double change. One of the arrivals, Aboubakar Kamara, won and converted a penalty but any hopes of a comeback were immediately snuffed out when Anguissa departed.
There were other absentees, with the landscape pockmarked by empty seats. If Mourinho got a vote of confidence that was relayed via his agent, Jorge Mendes, on Friday, it seemed a vote of no confidence from some season-ticket holders.
Those that turned up could savour a game that seemed to come from an earlier era.
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