This was a strange – and gloriously gripping – game. Fulham would justifiably leave frustrated with a point – despite having come from behind twice – but Lee Bowyer’s Charlton, who are making a habit of surprising opponents on their return to the Championship, would have felt they were good value for the draw as well.
The Addicks certainly surprised Fulham with an adventurous approach from the off, setting Scott Parker’s side on the back foot without managing to carve out a clear opening. The Whites boss had made two changes from the midweek mauling of Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, but that seemed to stall the momentum gained from that performance. Steven Sessegnon returned at right back but his shaky performance underlined that, for all his undoubted promise, the teenager still has a lot to learn at this level.
Charlton may been without the services of striker Lyle Taylor, but they created the better chances after absorbing plenty of patient possession football from the hosts. Former Fulham midfielder Darren Pratley should have opened the scoring but could only direct his header straight at Marcus Bettinelli, who also thwarted the lively Jonny Williams after a swift Charlton counter.
Referee Keith Stroud waved away a strong penalty shout when Aleksandar Mitrovic looked to have been hauled down by Tom Lockyer and the Serbian striker then headed over the bar from being found by a beautiful chip from Stefan Johansen, but it was little surprise when the visitors got the goal their enterprise deserved four minutes before the break. Jake Forster-Caskey was given far too much time to cross from the left and Chris Solly leapt under little pressure to cushion the ball down for Conor Gallagher, whose low shot trickled under Bettinelli.
Parker made radical changes at half-time, hauling off Sessegnon and replacing an injured Harry Arter with the composed Harrison Reed as he went to an experimental back three. The tactical switch did the trick as Fulham looked much more threatening with Bobby Decordova-Reid offering support to a previously isolated Mitrovic. The on-loan Cardiff forward nearly made an immediate impact but drove wide from range, although an effort from distance did level matters ten minutes after the interval.
Decordova-Reid had a hand in the equaliser as well, as his precise pass allowed Ivan Cavaleiro to roam infield from the right and the Portuguese winger crashed an unstoppable effort past the otherwise impregnable Dillon Phillips from 20 yards. The relief around Craven Cottage was tangible, but Fulham’s fragility at the back soon set them back once again.
The home side had ample opportunities to clear their lines from a corner but couldn’t get out of the box and Macauley Bonne climbed above Alfie Mawson to loop a header over Bettinelli and restore Charlton’s advantage. That set the stage for a rip-roaring final half an hour as Fulham poured forward in search of an equaliser.
They rattled the woodwork three times in quick succession. The first was fortuitous as Joe Bryan’s overhit cross almost embarrassed Phillips, but Mitrovic perhaps should have done better than find the crossbar when found by low crosses from Knockaert and Johansen.
The equaliser did arrive just after the hour mark as Mitrovic showed commendable quick thinking to scoop the ball over a grounded goalkeeper from close range after Phillips had pulled off another stunning save to keep Tom Cairney’s flying header. Charlton almost went straight up the other end and scored again, with Bettinelli producing an excellent stop of his own to deny substitute Jonathan Leko.
Fulham laid siege to the visitors’ goal in the final stages but couldn’t find a winner – even during seven minutes of second half stoppage time. Phillips was to the fore in Charlton’s resistance, whilst Lockyer and Jason Pearce fought a physical battle with Mitrovic that referee Stroud struggled to control. The goalkeeper made a string of fine saves, first positioning himself perfectly to pluck Decordova-Reid’s near post header out of the air and then turning aside the lively forward’s low shot after a dangerous one-two with Johansen.
The finest save of them all came right at the start of added time when he somehow denied Decordova-Reid, sliding in at the far post from three yards out, with the goal gaping. Fulham’s final opportunity was a central free-kick some 25 yards out that was mystifyingly curled over by Mawson when Cairney or Knockaert appeared far saner takers. Victory would have taken Fulham top, but Parker’s men will need to cut out the silly defensive mistakes if they are to threaten the automatic promotion places.
FULHAM (4-3-3): Bettinelli; S. Sessegnon (Decordova-Reid 45), Bryan, Mawson, Ream; Arter (Reed 45), Johansen (Onomah 87), Cairney; Knockaert, Cavaleiro, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Odoi, Le Marchand.
Parker’s side moved to fourth in the table following their comprehensive win over the Royals, which was sealed by three goals in seventeen first half minutes. The Fulham boss was particularly pleased that the Whites managed to follow up Friday night’s win over Wigan Athletic with arguably a much more complete display.
He told his post-match press conference:
I’m delighted with the performance first and foremost. But I’ve been sat in this position probably over the last four or five weeks delighted with the performance. It’s just the result that’s been missing a little bit, in the sense of a sucker punch at Sheffield Wednesday, and West Brom as well where we dominated large parts.
But the last two matches the result has been there. I understand that that’s what everyone ultimately looks at, but tonight I thought we were first class from start to finish. First 30 minutes we were devastating, I thought. They had a man sent off but even prior to that I felt we really stamped our authority on the game and showed that quality.
I think when we play like we did first 30 minutes, we’re a team that’s going to be very hard to deal with. Even when they had 11 men it was difficult for them. We moved the ball very quickly, we moved it with an intensity, and we were clinical in the final third. We’ve worked a lot over the last few weeks on getting that cutting edge, and the efforts the boys have been putting in paid off tonight.
Parker was full of praise for striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, who grabbed a first-half brace to put the game well beyond Reading, and he believes the Serbian striker should be targeting the Championship golden boot.
He’s got a chance. Mitro needs to understand what his base is and what his platform is. His platform is a hard work ethic for the team. Out of possession he’s the one who sets it about, and I think if that’s his go-to every single game then I’ve no doubt opportunities will come and he’ll score goals. That’s a big challenge for Mitro. He’s a top forward who we’re absolutely buzzing to have at this football club, and he’ll be pivotal to what we do this year.
Fulham banished the bitter memories of their play-off heartache at Madjeski Stadium with a commanding victory over ten-man Reading in the Berkshire drizzle this evening. Scott Parker’s side were in control even before John Swift received his marching orders for a second vicious foul inside twenty minutes, with captain Tom Cairney curling home a majestic opener and Aleksandar Mitrovic’s quickfire brace effectively ending the contest before the half-hour mark.
Parker freshened up his side following Friday night’s win over Wigan Athletic, introducing Denis Odoi at right back, recalling Harry Arter into the heart of the Fulham midfield and handing Bobby Decordova-Reid a surprise start on the left wing. Reading boss Jose Gomes made the bold decision to try and match the visitiors’ 4-3-3 formation, but the hosts were just unable to cope with Fulham’s fluid football and intelligent movement. Gomes’ tactical gamble could have disastrous consequences as the Portuguese coach will now be feeling the heat after six games without a win.
In truth this looked like a mismatch from the off. Decordova-Reid served early notice of Fulham’s intentions by cutting in from the left and firing over the crossbar, but it was the athleticism of Joe Bryan from full back that prised open the home defence throughout the first period. Fresh from his first league goal for the Whites, Bryan burst along the flank and slipped a clever ball into the feet of Stefan Johansen, who squared it for his skipper and Cairney found the top corner effortlessly from the edge of the box.
Swift, who could have walked for an industrious tackle on Decordova-Reid, was shown a second yellow card when he went through the back of Odoi – and with the former Chelsea midfielder went any hope of the Royals’ getting anything from the game. Fulham quickly exploited their numerical advantage with Mitrovic demonstrating his poacher’s instincts twice in three minutes. He deftly diverted home a teasing cross from Anthony Knockaert to double Fulham’s lead and then slotted home his second after another surging Bryan run.
Reading were reduced to damage limitation long before the half-time whistle. Both George Puscas and Yakou Meite, who spurned a glorious chance after being sent through on goal by Josh Barrett, had threatened the Fulham goal before the visitors’ onslaught but the closest they came to an opening after that was an optimistic shout for handball against Tim Ream, which referee Andy Woolmer waved away.
Any suggestion that Fulham might ease off after the break with an eye on Saturday’s London derby against Charlton was swiftly dispelled with their first foray of the second half. A barnstorming run down the left from Mitrovic fashioned an opening for Knockaert but Rafael did well to dash from his line and narrow the angle before making an excellent reaction save. Puscas briefly roused the home fans from their seats with a defiant run down the right that drew a save from Marcus Bettinelli at his near post.
At the other end, Rafael then produced another fine stop this time pushing away a venomous strike from Alfie Mawson at a Fulham corner before Knockaert drove wide following a quick counter led by Cairney. Fulham’s fourth arrived courtesy of a calamity in the Reading defence, with Liam Moore’s lame backpass selling Rafael short. The keeper’s clearance was charged down by Mitrovic and Johansen laid it off Cairney, whose impudent chip from 30 yards rubbed more salt in Reading’s wounds.
It might have been even worse for Reading. Mitrovic, a potent threat all night, almost laid on a fifth for Decordova-Reid at the back post, but instead the home side claimed a consolation in the final minute when Meite found a yard of space outside the area to curl a beauty into the top corner. There was no closing the enormous gulf between these two sides, however, as Fulham recorded their first win at Reading in eleven years and climbed to fourth in the Championship table.
Fulham manager Scott Parker admitted to a sense of relief after the Whites ended a five-match winless run by beating Wigan Athletic at Craven Cottage last night.
His side had to be patient, waiting until after half-time for the breakthrough against the Latics despite dominating the contest. Two fine strikes from Joe Bryan and skipper Tom Cairney sealed the victory and Parker feels that the result was crucial In getting Fulham back on track.
I think everyone was relieved. I was relieved on the side, along with the coaches. Certainly the players, and I think the fans were as well. I think over the last few weeks the results haven’t been there, but performances certainly have. We have probably played better over the course of the last few weeks and not got the results.
I think the result was key tonight obviously, and the second goal going in probably just took that edginess off us. And I understand that. We have been wounded over the last few weeks and when you have sucker punches like we have over the last few weeks it has an effect. And certainly it has had an effect on the players and it probably had an effect on the crowd at times. But the players were superb tonight and it’s a good result.
Every team that has come here has set their stall out and been very resilient in their work and been difficult to break down. We have worked all week on moving the ball and trying to get more balls into the box and keeping the tempo high. I felt we did that well tonight, against a good side.
In the last few weeks, we have gone 1-0 up and probably sat off it a little bit and given the team a bit more impetus to come at us and we have paid the price for that.
This was more like it. Fulham, without a win in more than a month, brushed aside what Scott Parker described as ‘a wounding few weeks’ and returned to winning ways as they eventually wore down Wigan at Craven Cottage tonight. They were forced to wait until deep into the second half to settle matters, however, after another sweet strike from skipper Tom Cairney followed Joe Bryan’s first league goal for Fulham and made sure of all three points.
It might seem absurdly early for managers to be under pressure, but there were a few whispers circulating about whether Parker, still at the start of his first full season in charge at Craven Cottage, had the nous to navigate his charges through a serious promotion push after Fulham had squandered winning positions against West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield Wednesday in recent weeks. The home side were dominant for most of this match as well, but proved ponderous in possession once again and had to wait until after half-time for the breakthrough.
Wigan almost surprised their hosts inside the first three minutes when the lively Nathan Bryne sped down the right flank and slammed an audacious effort in at the near post that Marcus Bettinelli did well to keep out. That proved to be the Latics’ most potent threat of the first half – the spiky tackling of Sam Morsy, who was booked for a late challenge early on, aside. The Whites quickly applied pressure on the Wigan goal with Harrison Reed only denied by a brave block from Chey Dunkley. The experienced David Marshall fielded another speculative effort from the on-loan Southampton midifelder and then claimed a header from Aleksandar Mitrovic, who posed the Wigan defenders all sorts of problems from the off.
Marshall used all of his experience to rush from his line and narrow the angle to prevent Anthony Knockaert from opening the scoring after the winger had worked a lovely one-two with Cairney and a superb cross from the left presented Mitrovic with a glorious opportunity but the Serbian striker sent an effort fizzing agonisingly over the crossbar.
Somehow, the visitors got through to the interval unscathed but Paul Cook’s gameplan needed revising just two minutes in the second half. There was an element of fortune about the goal, as a Knockaert free-kick was only half cleared and Bryan’s first effort was blocked by a defender. He tried again with his weaker right foot and found the bottom corner to ease any nerves inside the Cottage.
To their immense credit, the visitors pushed men forward in search of an equaliser and the contest became a much more open one. Lee Evans shot just over the bar and had another effort gamely blocked by Cairney, who was eager to make amends after being robbed in the middle of the park. Fulham were also fortunate perhaps not to be reduced to ten men after the tigerish Reed sent Dunkley tumbling to the floor in the Fulham penalty area after the defender had felled Bettinelli at a corner. Reed was only shown a yellow card, as was Mitrovic after another flare up in the middle of the field.
Fulham almost added the crucial second just after the hour when a beautiful spin from the recalled Stefan Johansen set Cavaleiro haring down the middle of the pitch. The Portuguese winger released Bryan down the left and he released Knockaert into the penalty area, but Marshall did brilliantly to parry away the on-loan Brighton winger’s shot and the excellent Antonee Robinson did superbly to reach the rebound ahead of Cavaleiro and clear.
Wigan continued to threaten on the break themselves, forcing a succession of corners to hint at another late comeback, and the increasingly influential Evans almost curled an audacious leveller in from long range, but the visitors were eventually caught out by a goal of the highest quality. Knockaert carried the ball deep into Wigan territory and a tired defender stood off Cairney until it was too late, as the Fulham captain curled a majestic finish into the top corner from 25 yards.
Fulham were far from their fluent best, but Parker will have been pleased with the higher tempo of their passing in the final third in the second half. He will also have drawn great satisfaction from a clean sheet as the Cottagers’ climbed to seventh in the table ahead of a trip to Reading on Tuesday night.
Yesterday’s result was for me the most disappointing of the
season. That might seem a strange thing to say given that West Brom are, on
paper, the best team that we have played against this season and will
undoubtably be fighting for promotion come May. But with how the game went, I can
only come away frustrated and disappointed. We were in complete control of the
game against a very strong side, but have handed the Baggies a draw away from
home on a plate. We have to learn from this, and quick if we want to stay
within touching distance of the teams at the top.
The big talking point coming away from yesterday’s game, is whether
or not we need a change between the sticks. Marcus Bettinelli hasn’t helped his
cause so far this season. He has always been a decent shot stopper, but isn’t
great in other areas. His distribution has constantly been called into
question, and he is now making mistakes far too often, costing the team points.
But before we start calling for his head, we need to look at things close up,
and then look at things in from a wider perspective.
Well it doesn’t look great, does it? A good corner into the
right area, but why is he flapping at that? And why is he trying to claim a
foul when Austin did what every front man in world football will do at corners?
He just wasn’t strong enough, and his reaction has only made it worse. He has
now come out and accepted the blame, and fair play to him for that, but really
the mistakes need to be cut out.
However, while Betts made the error, there are a couple of other
factors involved in this particular occasion. Firstly, why on earth do we not
have a man in between Austin and Betts? For me, that’s a huge error in
judgement from our defensive coaches if it was supposed to be like that. Of
course West Brom are going to put Austin in there trying to put the keeper off,
so why was Ream, or anyone not there to give him some sort of cover? Also,
Mawson can’t come away from that scot free. He was supposed to be on Semi
Ajayi, but he has let him run off him so easily. For a big lad, he sometimes
doesn’t use his strength. So, while Betts has made the biggest error of all in
this situation, he certainly wasn’t helped by his defence.
Wider perspective –
A lot of people won’t like this, but I think there are a vocal section of fans who don’t help the situation. At Barnsley away I was a couple of rows from the front and Betts was having abuse hurled at him from the word go. His distribution from the start was at it’s usual level, but a number of fans were on his back in a pretty abusive way straight away. This isn’t helping. Now, I know we have all paid hard earned cash to follow the team up and down the country so therefore have the right to express opinions, but for me there is a huge difference between that and just hurling abuse non-stop. If you honestly think that will encourage our players to up their game then you are mistaken. All it does is make the burden heavier and heavier, until someone will turn around and shout back, which is what I hear may have happened yesterday, although I can’t confirm that this. Another example is Cyrus Christie. When he came on against Nottingham Forest a few weeks ago we had some numpties booing him straight away. The guy looked terrified every time he got near the ball, and unfortunately as a fan base WE have to take some of the blame for that. It’s embarrassing.
I have no idea who we will start in goal against Sheffield
Wednesday, but I do think that Rodak must be in with a chance. If Rodak does
get the nod, then it should spur Betts on to up his game. Competition in that
area of the pitch is important. But for us as fans, maybe it’s time to have a
think about how we respond to whoever is on the pitch.
A terrible goalkeeping error from Marcus Bettinelli cost Fulham the chance of ending West Brom’s unbeaten start to the season as Scott Parker’s side had to settle for a point having dominated the Championship’s early kick off this afternoon.
Bettinelli, who was furious at the award of the goal having felt he had been impeded by Charlie Austin as he tried to reach Matheus Pereira’s corner, only managed the tamest of contacts and allowed Semi Ajayi to head home the simplest of equalisers. The tall centre back was delighted to score his first goal for West Bromwich Albion, who were rewarded with a point for their late pressure on the Fulham goal.
The home side looked likely winners once Anthony Knockaert chipped Sam Johnstone from a tight angle outside the penalty area four minutes after half-time, although the on-loan winger later confessed that he was trying to find a team-mate at the far post. The goal was fitting reward for Fulham’s first-half dominance, but it would have worried Parker that his side are still labouring fruitlessly in front of goal despite enjoying so much possession.
Slaven Bilic’s side were disciplined in defence and set up to try and frustrate Fulham but the home side still fashioned a number of chances as they probed away patiently. Ivan Cavaleiro, who endured a frustrating afternoon out wide as he struggled to find a final ball, had a couple of early shots blocked and then an outstanding tackle from Nathan Ferguson denied Bobby Decordova-Reid as he prepared to pull the trigger.
Fulham should have taken the lead midway through the first half when a brilliant bit of vision by Harrison Reed freed Tom Cairney in behind the Baggies defence. The Fulham skipper opted to go high as he bore down on Sam Johnstone but the West Brom goalkeeper managed to tip his finish onto the bar. The former Aston Villa custodian then produced a couple of excellent reaction saves to deny Knockaert and Decordova-Reid in quick succession.
The pattern persisted into the second period, with a desperate lunge from Ajayi almost ending up in his own net as he tried to deal with a dangerous cross from Joe Bryan. Johnstone gathered a downward header from Mitrovic from a set play but Knockaert’s opportunistic finish appeared to set Fulham on the way towards three points – although Parker’s side failed to find the killer instinct.
The expected surge of Fulham pressure never really materialised with Johnstone turning over a Decordova-Reid shot on the turn and a long-range effort by Bryan was deflected wide. Instead, Albion were rejuvenated by Bilic’s double change midway through the second half when he threw on Kyle Edwards and Filip Krovinovic to inject some life into their attack.
Darnell Furlong flashed a drive into the side netting, but Fulham failed to heed the warning and retreated deeper and deeper. Ajayi nodded in the equaliser and the Baggies might well have nicked a winner as well when Furlong headed agonisingly wide from another Pereira corner. Fulham will need to be much more assertive if they have serious ambitions of joining the automatic promotion race.
With the first international break of the season complete,
it’s time to get our minds focused again on Fulham. We had just the four first
teamers in action for their countries in Mitrovic, Ream, Sessegnon and Christie
and it looks as though everyone has come away unscathed. We’ll find out tomorrow
if we have any other injury concerns, but I think that Parker has a squad with
a full bill of health. Harry Artur is suspended, though, so we know already
that he won’t feature this weekend.
We have our toughest match of the season so far coming up on
Saturday. At least on paper, that is. West Brom have always been a tough nut to
crack and now, under the leadership of Slaven Bilic, we are up against a side
vying for automatic promotion. They are unbeaten this season in the league with
three wins and three draws putting them in fourth position in the table. Last
time out they came back from two goals down against Blackburn to win 3-2, so we
know that this team has a bit of metal about them. Encouragingly for us,
though, they have failed to keep a clean sheet this season, so with our front
three of Mitrovic, Cavaleiro and Knockaert we should be able to trouble a leaky
We’ll have to look out for tricky winger Grady Diangana, on loan from West Ham. The England U21
international has scored three goals this season and is the sort of player who
gives defenders headaches. He, alongside Charlie Austin and Kenneth Zohore, will
give us something to think about. The Baggies squad has a tonne of experience
and know-how at this level, so we will need to massively up our game from the draw
in Cardiff if we are to get anything.
Winning this game would send out the message that we are
going to be fighting at the right side of the table come May. It will hopefully
give us a better idea of where we are as a squad under Parker’s management. If
I’m honest, I don’t think we have seen the best of this Fulham squad yet. OK,
the Millwall game was special, but we need to be playing consistently near that
level if we are to go up. Everything went right for us that night, but we are
going to have very few games were that is the case. We still seem to start
games slowly which is something that we desperately need to get out of our
system. With the talent in our squad other teams should be shaking in their
boots with the prospect of facing us, but everyone knows that defensively we
aren’t as solid as we could be. This gives other teams hope against us.
I suppose the biggest question at the minute for Parker to
be pondering is who does he play in goal. Marcus Bettinelli has been a great
servant for this club, but I worry at the amount of mistakes being made in goal.
While I still think that he is just going through a slump, and is a much better
keeper than what he is showing at the minute, I can completely understand the
calls to let Marek Rodak, our very highly rated number two, have a chance. I
think Parker will stick with Betts for now, but I’d imagine that he doesn’t
have too many chances left.
As I’ve said before, this will be our biggest challenge of
the season so far. Hopefully at 1430 on Saturday we can just enjoy the rest of
the weekend’s football after watching Fulham romp to another win.
After six league games and a League Cup experiment, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what Scott Parker wants his Fulham team to be. Ahead of the most recent game in Cardiff, Scott hinted at the idea that there’s no right or wrong way in football but he believes this controlling, possession-based style is not only how he wants to play but is what puts Fulham in the best position for winning games of football. The start of the season has been mixed with the Whites unable to cope with Barnsley’s swarming pressing in the opening game and then producing the most dominant display in Championship history with a 4-0 decimation of Millwall after close-fought victories over Blackburn and Huddersfield. Nottingham Forest managed to overcome the starvation of the ball with Lewis Grabban clinically putting away their two only real chances of the game, whilst on Friday, a red card saw the trip to Cardiff transformed from Fulham pushing for a winner to battling for a good point in the end.
During this period, academy product Steven Sessegnon tied down the right-back position, thus eliminating one of the few question marks in the starting eleven. The older of the Sessegnon twins will admit he could have done better a few goals against this season but has shown a bite and confidence at full-back that hasn’t really been seen since Ryan Fredericks. Steven has already made more interceptions than any other Fulham player so far this season and looks the part as he looks to follow his brother’s path in establishing himself as a starter for a Fulham side that gets promoted back to the Premier League.
The goalkeeping position remains somewhat in flux. We’ve not been comfortable in our starting goalkeeper since Mark Schwarzer, who left Fulham in 2013. Marcus Bettinelli is a fine goalkeeper in the Championship but I’m still unsure on his potential to win us points and matches. In six fixtures, ‘Betts’ has conceded five goals, made five saves and has two clean sheets. I actually think that the defence has done a good job in reducing the volume of quality chances against our goalkeeper overall but where are the saves when we need it most? The moment we get caught on the transition, where is the goalkeeping equivalent of putting away that 1v1? I don’t think we’ve seen it yet and after Marek Rodak’s promising display at Craven Cottage against Southampton, the pressure is back on Bettinelli (and not for the first time in his Fulham career) to keep ahold of that starting goalkeeper position.
Back to the style of play, under Slavisa Jokanovic in the promotion season, four of Fulham’s top five in terms of short passes completed was midfielders Tom Cairney, Stefan Johansen, Kevin McDonald and Oliver Norwood. So far this season under Scott Parker, three of the top five are Tim Ream, Alfie Mawson and Joe Bryan, with Steven Sessegnon on pace to take over Tom Cairney to enter the top five. In every league game this season, Fulham’s most common passing combination has been Mawson either playing to or receiving from his centre back partner (Denis Odoi in the first game, Tim Ream in the subsequent matches). This does appear to show a far more passive and patient approach from Scott Parker’s Fulham as opposed to Slavisa Jokanovic’s midfield heavy approach.
Fulham visually may have somewhat of a creative problem, but only five teams are above the Whites for shots per game with Fulham level with Middlesbrough and only four teams have scored more with Fulham level with Leeds, Luton and West Bromwich Albion so the numbers don’t quite back that up but it’s perhaps arguable that Fulham have somewhat struggled to create clear-cut chances, a beauty from Tom Cairney, a couple of them from Ivan Cavaleiro and a Mitrovic penalty accounts for four of our ten scored whilst Mitrovic’s header at Huddersfield was created by a moment of madness from Juninho Bacuna. It’ll be interesting to see this progress after the international break with Scott Parker seemingly unsettled on the final piece to his midfield trio: Tom Cairney was partnered by Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen on the opening day before Harry Arter came in to tie down the holding role but most recently Harrison Reed came in for Johansen to take the holding role and Bobby Decordova-Reid has most frequently come into the midfield for his league cameos so far this season.
It’s been a mixed start for Scott Parker’s men with a style of play now very clear but the next step must be improving the link between defence and attack – in the five games we’ve conceded in this season, we’ve won just one of them. High possession is simply going to be how we play this season and once relationships continue to build, the teams settle and momentum comes into play, you hope Fulham can build upon a decent points return from the first six and really start to take a stranglehold on a side expected to compete for automatic promotion.
The overwhelming emotion after Fulham’s draw at Cardiff City on Friday was one of frustration. Disappointment after a chance to take all three points from a potential promotion rival slipped away. Anger at an experienced professional like Harry Arter, whose lack of awareness moments after being booked drew him into a situation where a red card placed his side’s position in doubt. Opporbrium towards another referee who appeared eager to book Fulham players, but showed a single yellow to a Cardiff man despite their sixteen fouls. Angst after Fulham played in fits and starts and never really worked up a head of steam after cancelling out a very preventable opener scored by Josh Murphy.
But strip out the raw emotion and there are some positives to be found. Mostly, in terms of the character of a side that found themselves under serious pressure, a man down in the final quarter, and remained unbowed. It was right that Scott Parker lauded the resolve of his players after the final whistle – there’s no doubt that last season’s Fulham side would have folded in a similar scenario. Tim Ream, Alfie Mawson and Joe Bryan were excellent in defence – whilst Aleksandar Mitrovic’s ability to do unglamorous defensive work at set plays played a crucial part in the closing stages. This was a precious point to cling onto – that could so easily have slipped away.
Parker managed the game well, too, following Arter’s moment of madness in the corner. He immediately recognised Fulham’s predicament called for Stefan Johansen’s tireless running after the Norwegian had been left out of the starting line-up. The removal of Ivan Cavaleiro and Anthony Knockaert made sense as did the decision to shore up the defence with the late introduction of Maxime Le Marchand. The Fulham manager might have voiced his frustration with how his side had used their attacking weapons in the first half, but his players saw out the game professionally in a hostile environment, limiting Cardiff to just two clear-cut chances. For a team with definite defensive frailties that was particularly encouraging.
There are, of course, still things to work on. Fulham don’t move the ball as quickly as they might when probing for an opening, a point picked up on by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink during his television punditry. It certainly seemed that they didn’t utilise the potency of their wingers regularly enough last night – and left Mitrovic starved of the sort of service he thrives upon. Fulham’s goal was a thing of beauty, but it was too much of a rarity given the way Parker wants his team to play.
To go behind having dominated both proceedings and possession was a real kick in the teeth, but the goal was a calamity. Ream and Mawson are excellent with the ball at their feet for centre halves but the more direct ball to Cavaleiro was a risky one with Harrison Reed, who looked largely anonymous on his first start, Arter and Cairney all unavailable for a short pass. Cavaleiro surrendered possession far too cheaply on his own halfway line and the defensive line was horribly exposed, with Mawson much deeper than his colleagues. Steven Sessegnon, who looked lively at the other end of the pitch, had ventured forward leaving Josh Murphy with a run through to the penalty area, which Mawson only belated attempted to narrow. The winger’s shot was not firmly into the corner by any means – and questions can rightly be asked of Marcus Bettinelli’s positioning and his failure to stop the shot. Such analysis might seem harsh, but the Championship is an unforgiving league – and opponents will relish highlighting any deficiencies.
But the toughness of a team is measured in how they respond to adversity. Bettinelli answered with a magnificent reaction save to keep the deficit at one – and his team-mates went up the other end to score a goal of exquisite quality. The approach play from the back was a little more direct, both Mitrovic and Cavaleiro wandered menacingly towards the box and two lovely touches from Cairney and the Portuguese winger laid a simple finish on a plate for the Serbian striker. Fulham’s frustration will have been that they weren’t able to build on this platform in the second half.
The visitors’ riposte was encouraging. After a shaky start at Barnsley, Fulham have put together a decent opening month. Today’s games will adjust the early league table somewhat, but ten points from six games gives Parker, still a remarkably inexperienced manager lest we forget, something to build upon. He has clearly sought to go back to the Jokanovic playbook in a bid to loose the shackles on Fulham’s most adventurous players and there will still be a lag time in terms of getting his ideas across.
But Fulham, notoriously slow starters to Championship seasons, have shown enough of that silky football to suggest that they can feature heavily in the promotion picture. And if Parker can align that flowing football with the sort of steel shown in the second half in Wales last night then the results could be worth watching as autumn gives way to winter.