By returning to the 4-3-3 formation popularised in our last successful Championship seasons, Scott Parker’s Fulham already has signs of taking shape. With Bettinelli in goal, a back four of Cyrus Christie, Denis Odoi, Alfie Mawson and Joe Bryan, the return of Kevin McDonald, Stefan Johansen and Tom Cairney as a midfield trio plus Aboubakar Kamara and Neeskens Kebano either side of Aleksander Mitrovic, the shape of the team was familiar to that from Slavisa Jokanovic’s promotion campaign.
Up against Champions’ League quarter finalists Porto last night, Fulham were strikingly more aggressive in their wing play and that was evident from the first couple of minutes. Neeskens Kebano, lively in his cameo against Burnley last week, burst past Argentina international Renzo Saravia and sent in a teasing cross that was just over Aleksandar Mitrovic, but would have fallen beautifully had someone taken a gamble beyond him. Getting the ball out wide is obviously a key Parker mantra, as evidenced by frequent switches of play that were often orchestrated by captain Tom Cairney.
Fulham seemed to be much quicker trying to get the ball to goal than in the Jokanovic era and that ties in with trying to feed the wingers with longer balls and force the opposition defence to shuffle from one side to the next. Porto, as expected, were excellently coached and their starting eleven contained the wily Pepe in central defence and two players in Alex Telles and Danilo Pereira who are of phenomenally high quality. Understandably against opponents of such calibre, Fulham did struggle to create much of note; their best chance of the 90 was Aboubakar Kamara’s eager running nicking the ball from Porto’s left back with only Ivan Marcano attempting to recover and the keeper to beat, Kamara dragged his shot wide of the far post. The vigorous press from the French forward was promising to see as he returns to the Fulham fold but the finish required a little more poise – the creation of that opportunity was all him and he deserves credit for that.
Defensively, there were a few worries. Off the ball we lined up in a 4-1-4-1 but we really saw why Kevin McDonald was seldom used in the Premier League. The midfield was easy to play through and the players in the back four will take criticism for that strangely. I love Kevin McDonald as a guy, and what he has done for the club, but you can not deny his lack of any athletic ability and he just appeared sluggish for the full duration of the game. For the Porto goal, it is him who loses possession for Porto to transition quickly creating a 4-v-4 against the Fulham defence. If I gave you two guesses on which Fulham non-defender was closest to our box by the moment Otavio’s bicycle kick hits the back of the net, I’d be fairly certain that wouldn’t guess correctly in Aboubakar Kamara. There was a Porto attack that finished in a Shoya Nakajima shot from just outside the area where McDonald is late to the tackle and the pass is beyond him before he’s dangled a leg out but Fulham’s two closest players to the defence? Neeskens Kebano and Aboubakar Kamara. You can sit there and talk about how we need to sign defenders but with the midfield defending that pedestrian and easy to play through, it’d be a waste of money either way.
It may sound like I’m going over the top, for a pre-season friendly in the middle of July against Champions League opposition but we need to learn from these games, need to evaluate because this could become evident come game time. Just watch the highlights on the club website and take note of every Porto attack – look where the midfield is, what chance does a back four have when they are so vulnerable so frequently? You defend as a team, but a lot of the time it looked like we were playing a 4-0-6.
All in all, it seemed a valuable trip to Portugal. From getting the players in shape in the sun to the team building activities like ‘quiz night’ and ‘golf night.’ Scott Parker said in his post-Porto interview that they sat the squad down at the start of the trip to talk about their mindset and ambitions for the coming season and Tony Khan has been open in saying he wants automatic promotion this year. We’ve had a good start to the summer with the contract extensions of both Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic plus attracting Ivan Cavaleiro to the club but there’s still work to be done on and off the pitch to make the aim for promotion a reality and this Porto fixture gave us an opportunity to assess where we are, what to expect on the football pitch and what needs to improve.