I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the only one in a foul mood had Saturday’s dreary date with Birmingham City ended goalless. Such a stalemate would have added to the impression that Scott Parker’s side are running of ideas as we enter the home straight. Funny how one moment changes things. A win is wonderful no matter how it arrives but there’s something even sweeter about victories earned with virtually the last kick.
But, once again, Fulham were far from impressive. Birmingham should really have scored at least once in the first half thanks to a comical cavalcade of defensive errors as Michael Hector’s less than impressive restart continues. It wasn’t even as if we rode our luck. Dominant in possession, Fulham’s toothless football in the final third left Lee Camp scandalously underemployed for long periods. It took until the 65th minute for home side to register a shot on target – and by then Birmingham were already happy to settle for a point.
Pep Clotet’s side gradually relinquished any attacking ambition. He withdrew the talented teenager Jude Bellingham, who could have had a hat trick in the first half, on the hour for the more defensively minded Maikel Kieftenbeld and replaced winger Jeremie Bela with Wes Harding, a right back. Even if the arrival of Lukas Jutkiewicz, a regular scourge of the Whites, sent a shiver down Fulham spines, the sight of the visitors retreating into a low defensive block, trying to shore things up with Harlee Dean coming on as a late substitute and switching to five at the park, signalled their true intentions.
It was crying out for a killer Tom Cairney pass but even though Fulham upped the ante as time ticked away, it would be a stretch to say anyone saw Josh Onomah’s late, late winner coming. Five minutes into stoppage, the sharpest move of the match finally prized open Birmingham’s defence. Bobby Decordova-Reid showed a sense of adventure, skipping away from two defenders on the right and feeding Harrison Reid’s late run. The Southampton loanee spotted the run of his fellow midfielder rather than going for goal himself and Onomah swept home smartly. Camp, who had produced a superb double save to deny Joe Bryan and Decordova-Reid minutes earlier, had no chance.
There were some subtle alterations to Parker’s tactics, even if the overwhelming feeling was that possession for possession’s sake got us nowhere. Tom Cairney was often Fulham’s widest left midfielder as Ivan Cavaleiro occupied more of a wide striker role. Harry Arter was frequently the furthest man forward, with Decordova-Reid appearing to take the idea of a false nine literally. This did cause issues in connecting defence and attack, which led to Denis Odoi’s first half booking, when neither Reed or any of the back four had a passing option in sight with twenty yards between the ball carrier and another white shirt.
However, it was somewhat refreshing to see some positional flexibility to a Fulham side that has been quite predictable. The holder will hold, TC will be centre left and the opposite central midfielder will be the same. The wingers will come inside in possession and the full backs overlap. It was quite apt that the winner came courtesy of some actual movement, Bobby floated right to collect the ball drawing Birmingham players out of position, Harrison Reed saw the space and moved into it whilst Josh Onomah looked like prime Frank Lampard sweeping home.
Parker should incorporate the dynamism of forward runners into his patterns of play when Aleksandar Mitrovic returns from suspension. Our talisman is far more formidable when the angles of attack are multiplied and he has company in the penalty area. Rather than pumping aimless crosses in his direction, let’s get midfielders joining him in the box – there’s untapped scoring potential in our side – and, who knows, a low ball on floor might do the trick as well from time to time.
I’ve moaned a lot recently, and nobody can say we played well on Saturday, with our penchant for possession cancelled out by Birmingham’s increasing willingness to accept a point as they looked to secure safety. But there were some encouraging signs with Ivan Cavaleiro making more in behind his full back and, even if the final ball didn’t always come off, the variety will ask questions of the opposition defence as opposed to everything being ahead of them.
Back-to-back wins should help boost the confidence around the Cottage as Fulham head into five games against some of the Championship’s in-form sides. Tuesday’s trip to Nottingham Forest, who stymied us successfully back in August, will tell us a lot about whether Fulham have recovered from the hammer blows of those defeats by Brentford and Leeds. Another victory and a play-off place should be secured.