The overwhelming emotion after Fulham’s draw at Cardiff City on Friday was one of frustration. Disappointment after a chance to take all three points from a potential promotion rival slipped away. Anger at an experienced professional like Harry Arter, whose lack of awareness moments after being booked drew him into a situation where a red card placed his side’s position in doubt. Opporbrium towards another referee who appeared eager to book Fulham players, but showed a single yellow to a Cardiff man despite their sixteen fouls. Angst after Fulham played in fits and starts and never really worked up a head of steam after cancelling out a very preventable opener scored by Josh Murphy.
But strip out the raw emotion and there are some positives to be found. Mostly, in terms of the character of a side that found themselves under serious pressure, a man down in the final quarter, and remained unbowed. It was right that Scott Parker lauded the resolve of his players after the final whistle – there’s no doubt that last season’s Fulham side would have folded in a similar scenario. Tim Ream, Alfie Mawson and Joe Bryan were excellent in defence – whilst Aleksandar Mitrovic’s ability to do unglamorous defensive work at set plays played a crucial part in the closing stages. This was a precious point to cling onto – that could so easily have slipped away.
Parker managed the game well, too, following Arter’s moment of madness in the corner. He immediately recognised Fulham’s predicament called for Stefan Johansen’s tireless running after the Norwegian had been left out of the starting line-up. The removal of Ivan Cavaleiro and Anthony Knockaert made sense as did the decision to shore up the defence with the late introduction of Maxime Le Marchand. The Fulham manager might have voiced his frustration with how his side had used their attacking weapons in the first half, but his players saw out the game professionally in a hostile environment, limiting Cardiff to just two clear-cut chances. For a team with definite defensive frailties that was particularly encouraging.
There are, of course, still things to work on. Fulham don’t move the ball as quickly as they might when probing for an opening, a point picked up on by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink during his television punditry. It certainly seemed that they didn’t utilise the potency of their wingers regularly enough last night – and left Mitrovic starved of the sort of service he thrives upon. Fulham’s goal was a thing of beauty, but it was too much of a rarity given the way Parker wants his team to play.
To go behind having dominated both proceedings and possession was a real kick in the teeth, but the goal was a calamity. Ream and Mawson are excellent with the ball at their feet for centre halves but the more direct ball to Cavaleiro was a risky one with Harrison Reed, who looked largely anonymous on his first start, Arter and Cairney all unavailable for a short pass. Cavaleiro surrendered possession far too cheaply on his own halfway line and the defensive line was horribly exposed, with Mawson much deeper than his colleagues. Steven Sessegnon, who looked lively at the other end of the pitch, had ventured forward leaving Josh Murphy with a run through to the penalty area, which Mawson only belated attempted to narrow. The winger’s shot was not firmly into the corner by any means – and questions can rightly be asked of Marcus Bettinelli’s positioning and his failure to stop the shot. Such analysis might seem harsh, but the Championship is an unforgiving league – and opponents will relish highlighting any deficiencies.
But the toughness of a team is measured in how they respond to adversity. Bettinelli answered with a magnificent reaction save to keep the deficit at one – and his team-mates went up the other end to score a goal of exquisite quality. The approach play from the back was a little more direct, both Mitrovic and Cavaleiro wandered menacingly towards the box and two lovely touches from Cairney and the Portuguese winger laid a simple finish on a plate for the Serbian striker. Fulham’s frustration will have been that they weren’t able to build on this platform in the second half.
The visitors’ riposte was encouraging. After a shaky start at Barnsley, Fulham have put together a decent opening month. Today’s games will adjust the early league table somewhat, but ten points from six games gives Parker, still a remarkably inexperienced manager lest we forget, something to build upon. He has clearly sought to go back to the Jokanovic playbook in a bid to loose the shackles on Fulham’s most adventurous players and there will still be a lag time in terms of getting his ideas across.
But Fulham, notoriously slow starters to Championship seasons, have shown enough of that silky football to suggest that they can feature heavily in the promotion picture. And if Parker can align that flowing football with the sort of steel shown in the second half in Wales last night then the results could be worth watching as autumn gives way to winter.