The biggest compliment you can pay Tim Ream is that Fulham fans are now sweating over who will partner him at Elland Road on Tuesday night. The American centre back, a thinker about the game and one of the more cerebral voices in the dressing room, would freely acknowledge that he didn’t have the smoothest of starts to life at Craven Cottage but his assured displays now make him an indispensable member of Slavisa Jokanovic’s back four. Ream was outstanding in the second half of last season but nothing encapsulated the transformation in his own fortunes better than his peerless performance as the organiser of the back line at Reading on Saturday.
With confidence on the ball and an excellent reading of the game, Ream’s attributes fitted seamlessly into the play-it-from-the-back style that Jokanovic wanted his Fulham side to play. But it wasn’t until he built on an impressive pre-season with a run of games alongside Tomas Kalas that he became a figure that the Serbian head coach could count on. In many ways, Ream – with a confidence on the ball and as a naturally left-sided centre halve – was an obvious fit from the beginning but after playing alongside a plethora of partners during his early months at the club, as well as filling in at full back, it was understandable that the demands of a new system, with its punishing high tempo and extra demands on ball-playing centre backs, seemed to weigh heavy on his shoulders.
That is no longer the case. Fulham fans were treated to the sort of consistency that made him a firm favourite at Bolton Wanderers and a regular face in the American national squad for more than seven seasons. As a largely unflappable individual, Ream is just who you want at a high pressure moment, such as when Kalas was gone in thirty seconds at the Madjeski Stadium yesterday. His reaction to FulhamFCTV afterwards – ‘there’s nothing you can do … you just curse at yourself for a moment, and then get organised’ – was the perfect summary of a man who has always prepared himself for his next challenge ahead of them.
The word from inside Motspur Park was that Ream was deeply frustrated with his indifferent start to his Fulham career and sought out Jokanovic in the summer of 2016 to understand what he needed to do to improve. Ream’s lack of recovery speed – something which the new breed of centre back is supposed to have in abundance – sometimes means he can get punished for getting too tight to a nippy forward, but his positioning was spot on when he was called upon after Christmas. Such was the quality of his appearances alongside Kalas that many Fulham fans almost forgot about Ragnar Sigurdsson during the run-in.
Ream’s levels have only gone up during the embryonic stages of this campaign. He was outstanding at the Madjeski Stadium, even ready to sprint back towards goal as Kalas went to ground in that now infamous incident. Ream’s innate composure would have had a lot to do with the way Denis Odoi slotted in almost effortlessly alongside him – and his attention to detail meant Joseph Mendes and Mo Barrow barely had another sight of goal in the entire first half. The 29 year-old used all of his experience and great spring to head away countless crosses and bravely blocked two shots that looked like they might have beaten David Button.
Ream has that quality that also marks out first-class defenders. Like Aaron Hughes, an equally unheralded member of an excellent Fulham back four, he loathes committing himself to a challenge. Going to ground is a move of last resort and he relies on an excellent football brain to get himself in the best possible position to retrieve possession for his team. The St. Louis native only went into a single tackle against the Royals, which is remarkable given all the pressure ten-man Fulham were under for 99 minutes, and emerged victorious. A sign of his emerging confidence was a mazy dribble to give his forwards something to work with that actually launched a very promising counter-attack.
Ream was constantly talking to his team-mates, coaxing Ryan Sessegnon through another demanding game at left back and you could see the teenager’s confidence surging in the second half as he utilised his exceptional engine to great effect, appearing several times as an auxilliary left winger. Ream was happy to drift out the Reading right wing channel to offer cover and slot back into his natural position as and when the reinforcements shifted across. At a time during the second half when the visitors appeared camped in their own half, it was Ream who was headed the ball away from danger and bringing the defensive line up. Ream’s was a performance etched in professionalism and delivered in his understated manner that, in another striking similarity to Hughes, means many may miss the pivotal nature of his contributions.
Ream’s renaissance at the heart of a much-improved Fulham defence had a lot to do with their sensational run into the top six at the back end of last season and, over the course of a truly searching examination yesterday, the Fulham number thirteen didn’t put a foot wrong. He’ll face another battle against Chris Wood at Leeds in midweek – but the prospect won’t faze him. Indeed, Ream will relish the contest. That’s just the type of fierce competitor he is.