For much of the season, Fulham’s major problem has been fitting Tom Cairney into their midfield. Shunted out onto either wing in a conventional 4-4-2, the midfielder seemed largely on the periphery of things and unable to influence fixtures to a prominent degree. He might have scored the odd cracker – the goals against Brighton & Albion and Hull will linger goal in the memory despite the defeats – but you sensed there was far more in his locker. Deployed centrally, Cairney has seemed a lot more at home and, as the most advanced of a trio on Saturday, he tore Queens Park Rangers’ ramshackle defence to ribbons.
Ever since his startling breakthrough with Hull City, Cairney has played most of his football in midfield. One of the principle factors for swapping Blackburn for the capital last summer was his frustration at being played out wide, so it seemed strange that Fulham were so keen to shoehorn him into their side as an afterthought, rather than the pivot around which a new midfield should be built. There may have been a worry that Cairney could be knocked off the ball too easily in such a physical league to be put of a midfield pairing – he was released by Leeds as a sixteen year-old for being too small – but Slavisa Jokanovic’s tactical tinkering might now have alighted on a successful solution to that problem.
Cairney thrived on the responsibility to get Fulham moving forward at Loftus Road yesterday afternoon. Whilst the Whites will face far tougher challenges over the remainder of the season, his impact was instructive. Dropping deep to dictate the player – although not as deep as Scott Parker and Jamie O’Hara who were able to adequately protect a previously overworked defence – Cairney always looked like he had an extra second on the ball and barely wasted possession. His passes regularly hurt Rangers and utilised the width that Fulham had in abundance thanks to the frequent overlapping runs of Ryan Fredericks and Luke Garbutt. There was little in the way of over-playing, either; Cairney moved the ball swiftly to allow Fulham’s rampant forwards to pillage to their heart’s content.
He had a hand in all three goals. The eye-catching moment came with his contribution to the opener, when he injected momentum into a precise passing move, by threading a gorgeous through pass between the QPR centre backs that Ross McCormack admitted meant he ‘had to score’. The ball was a thing of beauty, expertly dissecting Nedum Onouha and Grant Hall, but perfectly weighted to allow McCormack time to outrun his would-be challengers and lifted a sumptuous finish over the stranded Alex Smithies. An incisive switch of play to release Garbutt down the left eventually led to Fulham’s second and, when Moussa Dembele’s shot came back off the post, who was there to rub salt into Rangers’ wounds in first-half stoppage time? Yes, Cairney.
Jokanovic has a penchant for the 5-3-2 formation, having utilised it successfully with Watford as they secured promotion to the Premier League last year. The system certainly gave Fulham a hitherto rarely glimpsed defensive solidity, but the way in which they mixed brawn and brains in midfield shouldn’t be understated either. Cairney’s creativity has to be harnessed – he’s amongst the best ball-players in the division – and we simply haven’t seen enough of his linking with two of the league’s most devastating forwards this term. He should be pulling the strings from a central position, with as much freedom as he can be afforded, and Saturday’s deployment shows the way to go.