You have to feel for Scott Parker. Reacting to a dismal defensive display against Arsenal on the opening day, he picked a new goalkeeper and reshuffled his back four to no great effect as Fulham’s defensive disasters continued this afternoon at Elland Road. The Londoners shipped four to Marcelo Bielsa’s men – with three of them the sort of gift-wrapped presents you’d associate more with Christmas than the start of a Premier League campaign – making their failure to sign a centre back during the summer all more the mystifying. Parker could console himself with the fact that his team turned a contest they looked well beyond them at 4-1 into a seven-goal thriller, but such naïve defending already looks worryingly reminiscent of Fulham’s 2018/2019 top flight campaign.
It took just six minutes for Leeds, seeking their first Premier League win in sixteen years, to go in front. A needlessly conceded corner was haplessly defended. Kenny Tete, brought in for a debut on the strength of his adventure from right back at Ipswich in midweek, lost his man, Harrsion Reed and Michael Hector made a hash of clearing Kalvin Phillips’ delivery and Helder Costa crashed an emphatic finish in off the crossbar. Even when the Whites had been giving a helping hand of their own, with another senseless tackle from Robin Koch affording Aleksandar Mitrovic the chance to equalise from the penalty spot, they pressed the self destruct button again. Joe Bryan, who had won Fulham’s penalty, pushed Patrick Bamford in the back and Mateusz Klich restored Leeds’ lead just when the visitors were becoming assured in possession and looking like they were getting on top.
Any words of encouragement Parker offered at the interval were swiftly rendered meaningless as Leeds ruthlessly exploited more amateurish defending to take a firm grip on the contest. Klich threaded a searching through ball between Hector and Tete for Bamford, whose measured finish was a mark of his new-found confidence after a brilliant goal at Anfield last week. Alphonse Areola shook his head mournfully, but worse was to come. Hector inexplicably stepped up to try and win a header on the halfway line and when he failed Bamford burst away from Odoi before rolling an inviting cut back that Costa clinically converted the edge of the box.
With more than half an hour to go, and Leeds leading 4-1, the prognosis looked bleak for Fulham. Parker shuffled his pack sending on Bobby Decordova-Reid and Neeskens Kebano and, to their great credit, his side remained both ambitious and determined. Nothing typified that more than the display of Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, derided as an expensive flop during his last taste of Premier League and fresh from a fabulous season in Spain. Anguissa’s consistent winning of the ball in high areas unnerved Leeds throughout and he produced a peach of a pass to send Decordova-Reid through on goal, with the Jamaican forward firing a fine finish through Illan Meslier.
If that appeared to be just a consolation, alarm bells would have been ringing on the Leeds bench five minutes later. Ivan Cavaleiro and Tete combined well down the right before the Dutch international floated an enticing cross into the six-yard. Meslier came and got nowhere near it, with Mitrovic outjumping Liam Cooper to head home his second of the contest. From nowhere, Fulham were very much alive. Kebano almost capped an incredible comeback two minutes later when his low shot from the left surprised the Leeds goalkeeper and came back off the near post.
In contrast to the end-to-end stuff that came before, the denouement was frustrating tame for Fulham. They didn’t do enough to threaten a clearly nervous home side in the final ten minutes – but ultimately they were once again the architects of their own downfall. Parker spoke about the need to bring in centre backs during his pre-match press conference on Thursday, but how much damage will have been done by the time a signing is completed? Swapping Tim Ream for Odoi had little noticeable impact and, for as long as there is that fragility at the heart of Fulham’s defence, Parker’s success in overhauling the club’s mentality over the past year will be fatally undermined.
LEEDS UNITED (4-4-2): Meslier; Ayling, Dallas, Koch, Cooper; Phillips; Klich, Costa, Harrison; Bamford (Alioski 70), Roberts (Roberts 45). Subs (not used): Caprile, Struijk, Shackleton, Bogusz, Poveda.
GOALS: Costa (6, 57), Klich (pen 41), Bamford (50).
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Areola; Tete, Bryan, Hector, Odoi; Reed (Lemina 70), Anguissa; Kamara (Kebano 58), Cavaleiro, Onomah (Decordova-Reid 58); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Ream, Cairney, Knockaert.
BOOKED: Tete, Mitrovic.
GOALS: Mitrovic (pen 34, 67), Decordova-Reid (62).
REFEREE: Anthony Taylor (Cheshire).