The winter solstice night of Wednesday proved a salutary lesson for the Fulham following - fans, players, staff and management. There was no hiding place from the stark reality that the team has declined from the end of last season, while endemic to the league overall the gulf between the also rans and the top five is clearly widening. Hence some of the crazy scorelines we've seen since August.
Even in our darkest hours of struggle under Tigana, Cookie, Sanchez, Roy and Sparky, it's hard to recall a match from the past decade where Fulham's shortcomings were exposed so comprehensively as they were in this United display. Viewing with a dispassionate cold eye my Dutch guests at the interval described the play thus. Every pass and move from United players suggested clear lines of thought schooled from the training ground. Mentally every man in red was on the same page and playing to the same rhythm. My Feyenoord following buddy wondered if the team in white were eleven guys off the park who'd just met up at 7.30 to enjoy an impromptu kick-about. "They play like eleven strangers," he said.
Which begs the question, what on earth is Martin Jol doing to prepare the side for games? Don't be fooled by the fact we had more of the ball in the 2nd half and actually got into the box a few times. Not only did United twice have to re-organise after the loss first of Jones, then Young, they were always in control of the match, and in the final few minutes showed how deftly they could move the ball the length of the pitch and with three passes produce another wonderfully crafted goal.
For that first 45 the champions were magnificent. It was a joy to watch the speed of build up, the quality of Giggs prompting still of the highest order after all these years. Expanding the width of the pitch to its maximum with both Valencia and Nani literally standing on the white paint of the sidelines waiting for the inch perfect passes to land at their feet. Then running down the flanks at our full-backs, like U-boats picking off old unprotected rust-buckets in the North Atlantic. With Rooney coming deep Welbeck (hasn't he come on) and the supporting runners poured through the gaps, passed around us at will, and the goals flowed. United attacks focused on pressurising Baird - obvious thinking from SAF for a guy who's playing as a stop gap defender - while, as we all know (even if Jol can't yet bring himself to admit it) Riise is no longer up to the mark. And in the face of this red tide, little wonder that Senderos was shown up at times, while our midfield was non existent.
A neutral might say United were irresistable and there's no disgrace in losing to such a team. Fergie himself said post-match the first 45 were United's best of the entire season to date. Our bad luck then to catch them when 'hot' and not be facing the mentally fragile side dumped out of the Champions League by Basle two weeks ago. Er, well, actually no. What Fulham lacked for so often in the past in terms of skill when facing the big boys, we made up for in grit and organisation. Wednesday night we lacked the desire to get in their faces, the tenacity to close them down, the ability to raise our game. Who says so? Why none other than Martin Jol of course!
Which means all the blame for being totally outclassed is laid at the players door. No wonder we are struggling to put points on the board. Life must be pretty grim at the training ground and the mood in the camp is clearly having an effect on morale. Thus is the state of the club at mid-season, with clear disharmony between manager and a number of players. All this we might be able to live with, if our martinet of a manager was showing some professional nous or bringing signs of a new dawn. For my money he's doing neither. A no point return from the next three difficult matches - Chelsea (a), Norwich (a) Arsenal (h) and we start 2012 with only a half decent team and deep in the relegation mire. That's not me being alarmist - or overly pessimistic - that's fact. The board may indeed be forced into a re-think on Jol's future if we gain nothing from the next three.
To return to Wednesday night before concluding. How many more games will we continue to try and bludgeon a path down the centre of the pitch? United had given a pristine example of playing with wide men, Jol admits we need to make the pitch wider when we have the ball, so what instructions are being given out I want to know? Maybe Rich can get out his tactical board graphic for us to illustrate what Jol is too blind to see. Stick Dempsey and Dembele right on the touchlines 10-15 yards in from halfway. Brede, Danny or whoever pings the ball wide to feet. Both Demps and Moussa then carry the ball at speed - not in straight lines as they do at present - but at a 45 degree angle running up to the apex of the box. Bobby should be coming deep to drag the central defenders out of position and Ruiz must be our main man in the box hunting goals.
For his wasteful finishing from the other night I never want to see Andy Johnson in a Fulham shirt again. Three clear attempts to beat Lindegaard spurned, the one he connected with properly fingertipped over. At this level simply not good enough. LB11 on FoF and one or two other perceptive fans noted the time AJ spent saluting the Hammy End at the final whistle. He was clearly saying goodbye to Fulham Football Club. It's odds on BZ will be the next to wave cheerio. Jol's use of him from the 84th minute Wednesday the ultimate slap in the face to an honest pro and current international. Of course he needed to be on at the half, but Jol's ego now takes precedence over the club.
Oh, by the way, Happy Christmas... Twitter@fulhamphil