As the sun began to set in Alburfeira, a city in the Algarve region of Portugal where Fulham have spent the week training in the warm weather, the Whites took part in their first 90 minutes of the season in what was officially dubbed a ‘pre-season training match.’ Aston Villa were the opponents, starting with a strong team which saw club stalwart Gabby Agbonlahor, former Fulham alumni Kieran Richardson and new signing Micah Richards in their line-up. Opposition manager Tim Sherwood made it clear that Aston Villa would have two separate teams out in Portugal this afternoon highlighting the exhibition nature of the contest.
Fulham lined up in an old school 4-4-2 with an old fashioned playing style, similarly to Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, two clear wide players, a defensive focused central midfielder and a more offensive focused central midfielder. The first half developed into a 50/50 period with Fulham dominating a large part of the first 20 minutes or so, with Aston Villa growing into the half as it went on. Alex Kacaniklic, who took up the left midfield position in the first half, shone brightest of all the talent on show, running directly at his full back for what feels like the first time since 2013. It was Matt Smith that set the ball rolling for Fulham after a clipped ball in from Thomas Eisfeld eluded both Cauley Woodrow and Nathan Baker, only for Smith to latch onto it and dink over the onrushing Jed Steer in the Aston Villa goal. Emerson Hyndman ran play well for Fulham in the first half, providing more of a forward emphasis whilst Liam Donnelly held more of a solid substance in the centre of midfield before being taken off for Ryan Tunnicliffe after a nasty looking collision with Micah Richards’ forearm in full speed. The two full back positions were occupied by Jack Grimmer on the right and Kay Voser on the left, both supporting the attack comfortably in a more balanced system.
Fulham went into the break as 1-0 leaders in an entertaining first half. Both sides made plenty of changes at half time with Tim Sherwood changing his whole eleven and Kit Symons bringing on Sean Kavanagh, Shaun Hutchinson, Cameron Burgess, Ben Pringle, Larnell Cole, Ross McCormack and Adam Taggart for the second 45. Interesting, to me anyway, Ben Pringle took over Emerson Hyndman’s role in the middle of the park – perhaps out of necessity, with Larnell Cole down the left flank as Alex Kacaniklic shuffled over to the right hand side. Fulham took a while to get going in the second period and were punished for a signs of sluggishness as Joe Cole thread a pass through to the returning Libor Kozak to equal the game with a cool finish past new signing Andy Lonergan.
The Whites didn’t quite dominate possession as they perhaps would have liked in the second half, (though the pressing would have helped with the fitness), but it didn’t stop the endeavour as the ball fell to Ross McCormack around 25 yards out but rather than giving in to the temptation to shoot, he rolled the ball into Alex Kacaniklic who fired a ripping left footed strike from the edge of the box in off of the cross bar. The tides turned with the second as Fulham regained a sense of comfort within the game and controlled possession of the football with some patient play – and the Whites added their final goal after Adam Taggart fed Ryan Tunnicliffe in behind the Aston Villa defence, who in turn slid the ball back into Ross McCormack who rolled the ball into the corner of the goal with relative ease as Fulham ran out 3-1 winners.
What did we learn?
• The system is likely to change – we don’t know whether we will line up in a 442 for the next season, but there was no diamond in sight this afternoon. It’s certainly something to keep an eye out on as pre-season progresses and the likes of Tom Cairney and Lasse Vigen Christensen become involved, could we see Tom Cairney in the middle with possible signee Kevin McDonald and Lasse Vigen Christensen on the right hand side? Time will tell.
• Be prepared for lots of wide play! The two wide midfielders in the first half, Thomas Eisfeld and Alex Kacaniklic stayed wide and looked to get at their full backs – reminiscent of the on watching Luis Boa Morte in Alex’s case. If Alex can continue performing to this same standard, he will give Ben Pringle one hell of a fight for the left midfield position, where I’d prefer he stayed rather than on the right hand side. Whoever plays on the flanks will be asked to be threats on the flanks on this showing, rather coming inwards and floating around.
• There are still some defensive issues – individual error was a case at times in this match but we were fairly solid overall. As pre-season progresses, Kit Symons will find our best back four and the defence should grow into a more solid outfit. It was clear this evening that our full backs benefitted from the cover of their wide midfield protection.
• Andy Lonergan’s distribution, based on his hour of game play today, leaves a bit to be desired. Fulham were more than happy with keeping the ball on the floor and playing through the pitch, but the base of the team – the goalkeeper – was frequently slicing his passes, though the sun or surface could have been a factor.
For a first pre-season match, Fulham looked very strong showing finesse on the ball and looked a lot fitter than our counterparts this evening. You can say that results in pre-season mean very little, but winning breeds winning and we’ve won our first match against Premier League opposition who used a lot of players with plenty of Premier League experience. As I write, we’ve not heard from Kit Symons or any of the players that featured today, but I’m sure they’ll be pleased with a very comfortable start which will only produce confidence as we play each fixture and creep closer than the start of the Championship campaign.
Fulham – first-half team: Lonergan, Grimmer, Bodurov (c), Burn, Voser, Eisfeld, Donnelly (sub Tunnicliffe 34), Hyndman, Kacaniklic, Woodrow, Smith.
Fulham – second-half team: Lonergan (sub Bettinelli 60), Voser (sub Grimmer 73), Hutchinson, Burgess, Kavanagh, Kacaniklic (sub Eisfeld 73), Tunnicliffe, Pringle, Cole, McCormack, Taggart.
My man of the match: Alex Kacaniklic – A mature display saw Alex Kacaniklic act as a constant thorn into the Aston Villa display, giving Leandro Bacuna a very difficult first half – and his display earned a goal, of which he took with emphatic style. 24 years old in August, perhaps Alex Kacaniklic is coming of age, we shall wait and see, and I have my fingers crossed.