After a 5-0 mauling of Norwich last week, Fulham were always going to face a sterner test today than they did last week. This game was perhaps the best indicator of the season that we are to have, telling us whether Fulham would ever improve that dismal away record and how we would match up to the bigger sides. If only one thing jumped out of the performance today, it was promise. Promise that we will end that away record and promise that this will be a good season.
Fulham opened the match with a crisp passing 1-2 between Petric and Kacaniklic, who was a delight to watch for the whole match. We went onto the front foot from the start- now how many times did you see that away last season? Kacaniklic and Petri? then continued their winding run, which ending up with Petric being fouled on the edge of the box. Clever ball in from the much bemoaned Ruiz, Duff loses his marker (with a bit force) and pow, its 1-0. A brilliant start, but not one that would not be carried on.
Fulham dramatically tailed off after that, sleeping at times and being forced back by a combination of a relentless United attack and poor possession play and passing by Fulham. Briggs, Ruiz, Petri? and Diarra were perhaps the worst offenders in this- they just tailed off. Then again, so did most of the Fulham team, the notable exception being the sumptuous Dembélé. Of course, Robin van Persie’s goal was something special, but the goalkeeping for United’s second was poor, as was the marking for Rafael’s header and United’s third. Things were not looking good at half time- this was the Fulham of a few seasons ago, the Fulham that looks timid and shy and wary of attacking in away matches. This is shown through the excellent player influence chalkboard that the Four Four Two “Stats Zone” app provides.
Then Fulham woke up. We came out after the break and we looked very good. We stopped playing United’s football and started to play our football. Our attacking play became more linked, our defensive play came more solid and we looked a threat, a threat that was only kept out by the excellent (well, apart from the cross) David De Gea. Moussa Dembélé took a stranglehold on the game and tore that United defence to shreds with an excellent display that consisted of nine dribbles, three key passes, a 98% passing success rate and eighty touches. That is an excellent all round performance and one that very nearly got us that equalizer. The full backs came into their own, and a special mention for Matthew Briggs who transformed his shambles of a first half into an excellent all round full back performance, making the most tackles (5) out of any of the Fulham defence and winning the most duels over possession in defence (9). Steve Sidwell and Hugo Rodallega came on and both looked lively and got stuck in. We prevented United creating chances had they had done so freely in the first half, and closed down the wingers much better, which was just part of the change. The switch to a more narrow formation was also a key point, challenging a weak United centre back pairing and that certainly helped us to perform much better. The change in the second half performance is best shown by the second player influence chalkboard – a noticeable difference compared to a shy first half.
One person who does deserve mention is Bryan Ruiz. Despite concerns that he was being pushed off the ball, he was very good in the second half. He made 4 key passes, got fouled twice and got disposed the same amount of times as Dembele (4). His best moment was his little dribble in front of the defence before flicking it through to Rodallega who got his shot blocked. Lots of our play came through him, and his passing options were good and it was not coincidence that with Dembélé moving further forward as the game wore on he became much better- he was simply too isolated in the first half. I felt that there was an air of him being scapegoated today, his lack of strength being the most obvious reason why people do- but that was not the case. It was a good performance in what is perhaps the trickiest role to play against a strong team.
For the last 15 minutes of the game we bullied United on their home soil. Bullied. Overall we took 16 shots, with 6 on target- superb stats for an away team at United! We put ourselves forward and weren’t scared of attacking, whilst remaining defensively strong. Our second 45 would have quite happily got a win, certainly a draw, if we had played like that in the first half. I believe that Jol can sort out this team to play like that for 90 minutes- we know they can do it.
The transfer window closes this week and Jol has already outline his want for a striker and a cm and this was illustrated today. We lacked a powerful striker that could bully a makeshift central defence. Those two additions will give us something to mix up in away games and to keep the squad on its toes- something that will lead to better away results.
The game might have been lost, but it was full of promise- promise of a dynamic attacking Fulham away side, an away side that might just change our usual poor away displays. With reinforcements coming in during this week, I am extremely hopeful of an excellent season for Fulham: perhaps their best yet.
I’d like to finish by saying well done to Fulham’s Under-18s, who hammered Wolves 7-1 today. Promising sixteen year-old Emerson Hyndman scored a hat-trick from midfield, whilst the new Teddy Sheringham, Cauley Woodrow, scored a brace including a 30 yard screamer. Keep an eye out on those two – two excellent talents in an under 18 side filled with much promise.