Just what is it about Stoke City that scrambles the minds of Fulham managers? Five years ago, the Whites crashed out of the Premier League here after Felix Magath made the mystifying decision to play Dan Burn, a 6ft 5in centre half, at right back. This afternoon, Scott Parker selected Joe Bryan, a 5ft 7in left back, as one of three centre backs. Through no fault of his own one of Fulham’s most consistent performers of this campaign began a target for high balls pumped towards Lee Gregory – and the visitors, after making an encouraging start, never recovered once the striker’s flick on was seized upon by Tyrese Campbell to give the Potters the lead.
Parker’s decision to start with an adventurous 3-4-1-2 was undoubtedly influenced by Fulham’s second half display against Charlton before the international break, when he risked a bold tactical switch at half time as the hosts chased the game. Bryan filled as an emergency centre back there, but Charlton rarely pressed into defensive duties in the middle of the back three; the former Bristol City full back was far busier today. The change in system also allowed Parker to accommodate Bobby Decordova-Reid, who had starred off the bench against the Addicks, but the forward was anonymous this afternoon.
Fulham’s new system, which left them looking laborious and lethargic at times, also removed their natural width with notional wing-backs Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro looking lost when pushed high up the pitch to support an isolated Aleksandar Mitrovic as well as absent when it came to assisting an overworked back three. Harrison Reid and Harry Arter contrived to get in each other’s way in centre midfield, so all in all it was an inauspicious change that highlighted Parker’s inexperience as a manager.
It was a familiar story as Fulham enjoyed 78% of possession but struggled to create clear cut chances. The visitors began on the front foot, but went behind on the quarter hour mark from Stoke’s first attack. The simple nature of the goal will grate with Parker. A long kick from Adam Federeci allowed Gregory to climb above Bryan in the air and Campbell burst away from Tim Ream before finishing clinically across Marcus Bettinelli, who slipped just as the Stoke striker was about to pull the trigger.
Despite enjoying most of the ball, Fulham could easily have been three down at half time. Gregory was instrumental again in releasing Joe Allen behind the visitors’ defence but this time Bettinelli spread himself well to save the Welsh international’s curling effort. Teenager Campbell, the son of former Arsenal and Everton striker Kevin, might have grabbed a second on the half hour but an untimely slip allowed Bettinelli to block his shot before Alfie Mawson got in the way of the follow-up.
Fulham played plenty of pretty football in front of a well drilled Stoke defence but struggled for penetration. The equaliser they craved almost arrived five minutes before the break when Ivan Cavaleiro fizzed in a low cross from the right that deflected first off Sam Clucas and then Mitrovic before trickling wide of the far post.
The home side began the second half on the front foot and almost added a second instantly when Bettinelli had to improvise to save another effort from Allen with his feet, but the Potters were largely content to soak up waves of Fulham pressure and hit their opponents on the break. The superb Cameron Carter-Vickers, a rumoured Fulham transfer target in the summer, marshalled Mitrovic with a modicum of fuss and genuine chances remained at a premium.
Arter drew the first save of the match from Federeci when a dipping volley from 20 yards threatened the far corner, before some strong hold-up play from Mitrovic created the space for Cairney to curl one towards the far corner from just outside the box but the Fulham skipper’s shot was deflected just wide. Decordova-Reid drilled disappointingly wide from eleven yards and then an intricately worked free-kick saw Cairney’s tame shot easily fielded by Federeci.
Fulham ramped up the pressure but their final ball was too often lacking. When Cavaleiro did conjure up a dangerous delivery, Decordova-Reid headed straight at Federeci and the closest Fulham actually came to a goal was when Bryan, by now operating as a marauding creator, grazed the crossbar with a dipping drive.
Just as Parker’s men looked to pen Stoke back for a final push, the home side punished Fulham’s profligacy with a sucker punch. The tireless Gregory released substitute Scott Hogan behind the remnants of the Fulham defence with a perfectly weighted through ball and, as the former Brentford forward attempted to skip around Bettinelli, the Fulham keeper brought him down. Gregory sent him the wrong way from the spot to seal back-to-back wins for Stoke, who climb off the bottom of the Championship table.
Nathan Jones celebrated with all the relief of a man whose job has been on the line for much of the first two months of the season, but Stoke’s victory was made much simpler by Parker’s tinkering. Fulham can’t afford to hand over points so carelessly if they want to be in the promotion shake-up come the spring.
STOKE CITY (4-3-1-2): Federeci; Edwards, Martins Indi, Baath, Carter-Vickers; Allen, Ndiaye, Clucas (Lindsay 90); Etebo; Gregory (Vokes 90), Campbell (Hogan 76). Subs (not used): Butland, McClean, Ince, Duffy.
BOOKED: Ndiaye, Baath.
GOALS: Campbell (16), Gregory (pen 80).
FULHAM (3-4-1-2): Bettinelli; Mawson, Ream, Bryan; Knockaert (Kebano 83), Cavaleiro, Arter (Onomah 64), Reed; Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Christie, Odoi, Le Marchand, Kamara.
BOOKED: Mitrovic, Bettinelli.
REFEREE: Andy Davies (Hampshire).