Thumping 5-0 victories over promotion contenders are becoming commonplace at Craven Cottage. For Huddersfield, sitting in third place when they brought their flowing football to south west London, see Reading, who were demolished just as comprehensively yesterday afternoon. Both teams, managed by continental managers, made the same mistake. They were eager to play expansive games, opting to play football from deep in their own half and took risks against the emerging Fulham high press. It proved to be a disastrous strategy.
As well as transforming Fulham’s goal difference (which might come to be crucial when the points are totted up in May), the manner of these wins over sides that could directly threaten the Whites’ top six aspirations will boost the reserves of confidence around Motspur Park. The re-establishment of the Cottage as a place where opponents fear to come is a crucial part of Slavisa Jokanovic’s project – so much so that the Serbian head coach afforded himself the merest of smiles when he told the assembled press pack that he would ‘try to be satisfied’ with the absolute mauling Fulham dished out after the final whistle.
But there is a still gaping disparity between Fulham’s results when they face sides willing to play football against them – thus opening up the space for the home side’s forward movement – and those who set up to stifle, frustrate and nullify. The games that upset Fulham’s early season rhythm – against Birmingham, Burton Albion and Queens’ Park Rangers – all played out to a familiar pattern. Plenty of possession but little penetration against sides resolutely focused on breaking up the play and keeping Fulham’s most adventurous performers shackled. It was striking yesterday that Kevin McDonald and Tom Cairney, both pivotal to the fortunes of this emerging Jokanovic team in very different ways, were afforded the freedom to express themselves.
That was something managers who had done their homework would have been at pains to avoid. Cairney, so gifted and gorgeous when in full flight, has looked lightweight when up against some of the division’s more physical and robust sides, especially when he has faced not one but two defenders detailed to prevent up from drifting inside and influencing proceedings higher up the pitch. Reading’s goose might have been cooked once Danny Williams stamped on Stefan Johansen – but the Royals had already paid the penalty for failing to diligent disrupt Fulham’s rhythm.
The question about whether this Fulham side has matured enough to be able to unlock the most miserly of defences remains unanswered. There have been signs of late – witness Scott Malone’s very late equaliser against Sheffield Wednesday – that Jokanovic’s men have the belief to keep trusting their football until the last whistle goes, but the more astute tacticians will want to close down the space in which Fulham’s wingers – so electric yesterday – like to operate. The oceans of room into which Fulham were able to stroke the ball around in front of Reading prior to Johansen’s lovely curler simply won’t be there against the majority of sides in the league, who will be far quicker to snap into a tackle.
You would expect a far more feisty encounter at Wolves next weekend for example. Paul Lambert earned his first win a few miles away at QPR on Thursday night – and the Midlands club were good value for that success in Shepherd’s Bush. Lambert’s sides have a reputation for being easy on the eye, but a gnarly old holding midfielder like the Scot, will also imbue his teams with plenty of steel and a good degree of game management. The likes of Dave Edwards and Conor Coady simply won’t be accommodating enough to give Johansen and Cairney the sort of room to pick out passes and try little tricks – the tempo will be quicker and the challenges carrying a fair bit of bite.
All of this is not to dismiss the way in which Jokanovic’s side have dismantled two sides that were the talk of the Championship fairly recently. Huddersfield’s form had taken them to the brink of the automatic promotion places and they were swatted aside with disdain, whilst Reading looked nothing like the team that were on a five-match winning run. Consistency is vital in the Championship and Fulham have spent the past two years searching for a modicum of it. If Jokanovic’s boys can replicate the high levels they touched during this display on a regular basis, Fulham could yet climb higher than the sixth place they currently covet.