Well, yesterday sucked. I usually like to take some time before sitting down to express some thoughts and analyse but honestly, as I sit here and type drinking a cup of coffee listening to Angie McMahon, I still don’t really know where I’m going here.
I’m perplexed by the impressive first half honestly, we were thoroughly excellent in the first 45, dominating possession of the football and holding Leeds into their own half and isolating Stuart Dallas in one-v-one match-ups against Anthony Knockaert, which Knockaert was winning, peppering four shots but without seriously testing the goalkeeper. We overrun the Leeds midfield and they’d have been delighted to go in level let alone a goal up.
The second half was simply a disaster. It was far from a good performance from anyone over the course of the game but I do feel it apt to repeat a point I made on Twitter, both Harrison Reed and Michael Hector were playing in central partners but on their own. Tim Ream and Harry Arter’s performances contributed to the fragility of the left hand side with Joe Bryan like a deer in headlights not knowing whether he was coming or going. Leeds are credited with creating five chances from open play in the game – and four of those five came down the left hand side of our defence.
How to solve a problem like the left flank? It’s been a problem area in many of the games this season but the last two matches have just highlighted exactly how it can cost us games. I think it’s time to change the team about a bit and it wouldn’t be the first time this season that Joe Bryan has been dropped for poor defensive performances but maybe now it’s time for club stalwart Tim Ream to join him; he just looks finished. With Terence Kongolo injured and Alfie Mawson not in the match squad for the past two fixtures, his replacement would likely be Maxime Le Marchand who hasn’t started a game for Fulham since November and you have to go back to August in the EFL Cup against Southampton to find his last start at centre back.
This team feels a little lost at the moment and in desperate need of a spark. Sometimes that comes with a change of personnel, or a change of shape. Now Slavisa Jokanovic kept faith with the famous 4-3-3 that won promotion at Wembley but you wonder how that season may have ended if not for Matt Targett – who not only solidified the left back but allowed Ryan Sessegnon to push up to the wing – and Aleksandar Mitrovic who gave Fulham a forward, when Jokanovic had previously played Stefan Johansen as a false nine, such was the ineffectiveness of Rui Fonte. It’s too far into the season for Scott Parker to be so one-dimensional when this team’s fragilities have been exposed and I think a switch to a 3-4-3 of sorts could be ideal.
In our system, we’re putting pressure on our full backs to get forward and attack but Ream can’t defend that channel nor is a midfielder dropping in to cover (see Jordan Henderson’s work allowing Trent Alexander-Arnold to essentially play as a winger). In a 3-4-3, our full backs (now wing backs) are naturally positioned more aggressively allowing them to support attacks quicker but they’re also covered by three behind and typically a midfielder as well (Harrison Reed likely). Suddenly, Fulham are attacking with the two wing backs maintaining width, a central midfielder supporting and three up front – it’s a six pronged attack.
Teams to think of in this shape would be Wolves, who comfortably won the title with their wing backs (Matt Doherty and Barry Douglas) contributing 27 goals (more than Anthony Knockaert, Bobby Decordova-Reid and Anthony Knockaert combined this season). Neves could dictate games knowing he had three centre backs behind plus Roman Saiss covering, width in the wing backs allowing Jota and Cavaleiro/Costa to float in between the lines as options. Jota scored 17 this season and Cavaleiro assisted 12, not only did Wolves outscore Slavisa’s promotion side ‘the Entertainers’ they also had the best defence in the division.
Another team to consider would be Sheffield United who actually utilised a three-man defence with a strike partnership – meaning their spare man would float around as a 10. Since promotion to the Premier League this has been tweaked somewhat, adding a holding midfielder to cover those famed overlapping centre halves. I wouldn’t expect Scott to be as bold as to go with overlapping centre backs but the principles are similar in it allowed Norwood and Fleck to control games in the middle. Sheffield United, like Wolves, had the best defence in the division and finished fourth for goals scored (their goals largely came from the front two in Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick). Fulham, on the other hand, have scored fewer goals than fourteenth placed QPR and as many as relegation-threatened Hull City.
Onto how Fulham may look if they were to break with Parker’s favoured formation. It makes most sense to move towards a 3-4-3 to retain the wide players (also with Aboubakar Kamara seemingly injured, we’re not exactly spoiled for choice with strikers). Marek Rodak retains his place in goal, Denis Odoi can comfortably play the right side of the back three, his experience playing centrally in a two as well as being confident pulling wide into the fullback positions to cover is vital. Michael Hector is the tank in the middle and Maxime Le Marchand, like Odoi but less comfortable, has experience playing full back and can pull wide if need be; he’s also comfortable on the ball and we won’t lose anything in terms of distribution from the back. Joe Bryan’s performances would likely improve with the freedom to fly forward whilst his left back area is covered. I’d go Cyrus Christie as the right wing back, and while he’s no Ryan Fredericks, he can fly and bomb up and down the wing. We’ve not seen Christie’s best at Fulham and perhaps he may thrive in a wing-back role.
In midfield, Harrison Reed is one of the midfield two, his job would be much like Romain Saiss at Wolves, break up play, cover the back three and give it to the attackers. I don’t think Tom Cairney has the range to play as his partner, I’d probably go Stefan Johansen who can switch play, create and cover from a deeper midfield position. But no, Cairney isn’t getting dropped, I’d play him as the ‘right’ of the front three but in reality, he can go where he wants. Just get into space, receive and create, my inspiration for this would be Wigan’s 343 under Roberto Martinez where Shaun Maloney was excellent in doing just that: he created most chances, was second top scorer and had the most assists; Tom Cairney can flourish in a role merely focused on being free in between the lines and making progressive passes.
The other two up top are quite simple, it’s Aleksandar Mitrovic down the middle and Ivan Cavaleiro to the left. Cavaleiro has excelled in this position and has the flexibility to play on either flank and can ask serious questions of the defence with movements inside, runs in behind, or floating over to the right to create overloads and go down the line. In this shape, when the ball is on the byline in possession of the wing back, you could have the opposite wide player and Aleksandar Mitrovic in the box, the opposite winger can take a wide position in the area whilst Stefan Johansen can float around the edge.
I think with a 3-4-3, we can get some defensive solidity on top of allowing us to fire a lot of players forward, maintain the full width of the pitch and have multiple players pick up the holes in the opposition defence. I think it gives you flexibility to be aggressive with subs (dropping TC into the midfield two and putting on a Bobby Decordovia-Reid or Anthony Knockaert in the front three) or gain solidity by quickly switching to a 3-5-2 simply by dropping Cairney into the midfield or Kevin McDonald can come into the 3-4-3 and offer the Matic presence from Chelsea 343 under Antonio Conte (another successful side).
Even during a game, you could have the players simply shuffle over so Denis Odoi shapes up as a traditional right back, the centre back partnership turns into Hector and Le Marchand as Bryan slips into his old left back spot and Cyrus Christie is then a wide player (or vice versa, Christie right back, Odoi and Hector centre back, Le Marchand slides to left back and Bryan maintains a more naturally attack position). The fact that we can do so much with one movement or one sub asks so many questions of the opposition. Fuck it Scott, what have we got to lose?
I didn’t intend this to be an ‘I can do better’ tactical post, but it does outline an alternative to what has been quite formulaic football of late. My coffee is finished, I’m now listening to ‘Summer City’ by Chasing Madison and suddenly everything feels rosy (until Tuesday night). I didn’t want to focus on ‘who could we appoint next’ but I am quite desperate to see Scott Parker do something inventive to find a win as we currently have no momentum and seemingly no confidence to succeed in the playoffs. What say you?