It was a Cardiff fan who posed the question as the home fans trudged disconsolately away from the Cardiff City Stadium after last Sunday’s FA Cup tie. ‘Why on earth did we let Scott Malone leave?’ Perhaps the more salient query was why the Bluebirds were so keen to swap him for Jazz Richards, given that the longer the season stretches on, that appears to be a contender for transfer heist of the year. It seemed bewildering at the time – but the manner in which Malone has kicked on since moving to Craven Cottage makes that player-exchange arguably one of Fulham’s smartest moves in the market for a while.
Malone, according to an interview he gave to the Sunday Times ahead of his return to Cardiff last week, required some convincing to pick Fulham as his destination in the summer. He was quickly inspired by Slavisa Jokanovic’s plans and the way in which the former Millwall defender has slotted in so impressively to that reshaped back four has helped turn a problem position into a surfeit of riches. Where Tim Ream was once deployed as a makeshift full back because Jokanovic had lost confidence in everyone else at his disposal, the emergence of Ryan Sessegnon as a genuine first-team option at the tender of age of sixteen means Malone is under pressure for his place every single week.
In his revealingly honest post-match interview with BBC London yesterday, Malone seemed genuinely surprised by his sudden emergence as a goalscoring threat – and even more astonished with the quality of finish he conjured up yesterday to put brave Barnsley to the sword. But the regularity with which he bombs up and down the left flank is an indication of both just how adventurous Jokanovic wants his team to be and the confidence that the Serbian head coach now has in the reinforced spine of his side. Malone is a genuine attacking outlet, frequently stretching opponents in the final third, and providing width – that without a great deal of left-footed wingers – might otherwise be missing.
On the other flank, Ryan Fredericks encapsulates the modern full back. His blistering pace has always been apparent but the work that Marco Cesarini, Ally Harris and the rest of the Fulham fitness staff have put into ensuring that an injury-prone youngster was able to return from a serious pre-season injury to such devastating effect has to be commended. Fredericks, who has never previously managed to withstand the rigours of a full season in senior football, has also been encouraged to make the most of his outrageous speed in the final third – and teaming up with Sone Aluko yesterday, the pair gave Aidy White a torrid time.
In his gradual conversion to an attacking full-back, Fredericks – who like Sessegnon and Malone would be equally comfortable as a wing-back, offering Jokanovic an intriguing additional tactical option for later in the campaign – reminds me a bit of the revelation that was Steve Finnan. The Irish international, who played in all the English professional leagues went to a World Cup and went on to count a Champions’ League winners’ medal amongst his prized possession, matured into a far more assured defender that Fulham’s current number two is at the moment, but the similarities are striking.
On a small pitch like the one at the Cottage, you can sense Jokanovic’s desire to make the field as wide as possible – and his commitment to attacking football has allowed Fredericks and Malone the freedom to go forward, even at a time when conventionally you would be looking to tighten things up at the back. The pair offer Fulham so many possibilities in the final third, particularly with Fredericks’ ability to commit defenders at pace, that there would be ample opportunities to profit were the Whites able to be a little more decisive in front of goal. Both have worked on their crossing – Fulham’s two goals in Cardiff resulted from deliberate low cut-backs from the right after surging Fredericks runs – and Malone, after supplying a winner for Lasse Vigen Christensen in the EFL Cup, has majored on hard and low centres from the left.
Full back can be one of the toughest positions to fill on a football pitch, especially in the modern era when athletes are expected to be experts in both penalty boxes. Denis Odoi began the season with that astonishing flick against Newcastle, but such has been Fredericks’ impact on his return from injury, that he now finds it difficult to get a regular game. Sessegnon and Malone offer genuine comfortable for that once tricky left-back slot – and the overall ethos amongst the quartet is greatly encouraging.