You can see why Fulham have been tracking Kevin McDonald for more than a year. Experienced, assured, a calming influence in front of the back four, sensible in possession, nearly always well-positioned and an expert reader of the game. When so much has changed in the side that Slavisa Jokanovic has put together for this season, you can’t conclusively prove that McDonald personally makes a massive difference – but his addition makes things far more organised, which is something Fulham have been crying out for in recent years.
McDonald is by no means a flashy player. There are few histrionics, not too much frantic arm-waving and hardly any Hollywood balls. He does have a good eye for a pass – as seen yesterday by the way in which he spread the play effectively – but he largely keeps it simple at the base of the midfield, providing an option for his defenders and moving the ball on quickly. But perhaps the most important aspect of his play is breaking up the opposition’s attacks with a modicum of fuss, usually by stepping into a dangerous situation to retrieve possession or pressing an opponent without going to ground. All this despite McDonald not being built like your archetypal midfield destroyer – he might be tall, but he is wiry and lean rather than powerful. Every team needs a player like him – such unfashionable, non-plaudit winning roles are what grinds out gritty wins like yesterday’s.
Jokanovic’s plan to eradicate the defensive generosity of the past two years clearly rests on stiffening the spine of the side, specifically starting the campaign with two defensively-minded midfielders screening the back four. I can’t have been the only Fulham fan who, upon seeing the teamsheet, wondered how Scott Parker and McDonald would dovetail, especially after the 36 year-old went the full ninety minutes at Leyton Orient in midweek. But Parker’s disciplined and energetic performance, alongside the quietly effective McDonald, was a revelation – and he almost popped up with a crucial third goal, breaking into the box to nearly finish a flowing Fulham move at a time when the visitors were supposed to be soaking up Preston pressure.
Once Simon Grayson had got into his side at the break and Preston went more direct in the second period, things weren’t as comfortable for the Fulham defence, but they were far more difficult to play through then the previous iteration – largely thanks to Parker and McDonald providing the ballast in those deeper midfield roles. Only when Jermaine Beckford arrived as a substitute and immediately posed problems by drifting out towards the flanks did things become a bit jittery, but Fulham’s resolve was pretty impressive, especially when you consider there was plenty of time for North End to force David Button into saves following Callum Robinson’s thumping far-post header.
Early season form comes with plenty of caveats. We’ve had one midfielder from Wolves who started off impressively before tailing off alarmingly and now plies his trade with Gillingham. Like the team, there’s no point getting carried away after two wins – the unforgiving nature of the Championship means another serious test awaits at Elland Road on Tuesday. But McDonald’s start – and the added security he has given the Fulham defence – hints at more successful times ahead.