You have to go back a while to find happy Fulham memories of the Premier League. Our last two seasons were dismal relegations, with six managers, an orgy of spending and not a semblance of a tactical plan. The fixture computer wasn’t kind this time around: by the time it handed Scott Parker an opening day test, Arsenal had been transformed from the shambles that Unai Emery bequeathed Mikel Arteta into a hungry side with a new shape and plenty of pace up front.
The morning after a top flight humbling is tough, but the Whites will need to learn their lessons quickly. This campaign is condensed into eight months and two genuine six-pointers arrive in quick succession. It will help that Fulham will know what to expect from Marcelo Bielsa, having been on the wrong end of an exhibition of ruthless at Elland Road last season, but as Liverpool found out last night, Leeds are nothing if not enterprising. They will have eye their first home fixture as an ideal opportunity to grab three points. In truth, until Fulham are able to change a few minds, most of the division will view Parker’s side as the league’s whipping boys.
That’s not as bad a place to be as it sounds. There’s potential for complacency from other sides, but such uniformity in writing Fulham off will foster a bit of siege mentality at Motspur Park. About the only positive from yesterday’s humbling at the hands of an impressive Arsenal side was that, three goals down midway through the second half, Fulham were able to stem the bleeding. There was plenty of fight – something that was sorely lacking during our last season in the top flight – even if the gulf in quality was far too big to bridge.
There are things Parker will need to pick up on as well. Fulham’s best period in the game was the first ten minutes. They pressed Arsenal with purpose and clearly unsettled the visitors. Had Aboubakar Kamara taken the chance that was laid on a plate for him in the second minute, then Parker’s gameplan might well have come into its own. These are the harsh realities of Premier League. Arsenal scored from their first attack, exposing the soft underbelly that Fulham’s defence remains, and they never looked seriously threatened again. Fulham’s press became somewhat stilted after that, the front three remained energetic, but the central midfield duo proved far too passive – especially against a pair of holders in Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny.
The Fulham head coach will have had his reasons for selecting the eleven he did: loyalty would have been near the top, with the lack of fitness of some of the new signings following behind. But there’s little room for sentiment here. Tim Ream and Denis Odoi have been sterling servants for Fulham, but they are patently not good enough at the highest level. Expect Kenny Tete and/or Ola Aina to be introduced against Ipswich – whilst efforts to recruit a dominant centre back to play alongside Michael Hector, who also endured an error-strewn afternoon, must come to fruit quickly.
The balance of Fulham’s side felt fundamentally off too. Harrison Reed was left with far too much shackling to do, which might be the case against the league’s better opponents whatever line up Parker puts out. We saw a far more offensive-minded cameo off the bench from Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa – I’d be intrigued to see whether his physicality could help shut down some passing lanes from the kind of deep-lying midfield position where Tom Cairney featured yesterday – and it can’t be long before Mario Lemina gets a go either. Unfortunately, Ivan Cavaleiro, who was one of the day’s most surprising selections, was anonymous again. Neeskens Kebano at least ran at Arsenal defenders with purpose – offering something different to what became laboured and largely predictable passing.
The greatest flaw in Fulham’s line-up was the absence of Aleksandar Mitrovic. This seemed tactical, although the fact that Mitrovic had spent most of the final week of pre-season with Serbia might well have influenced Parker’s thinking. It was no surprise that, within moments of coming on, Mitrovic had spun away from Hector Bellerin and fired a shot in at goal. He is Fulham’s only true performer of Premier League pedigree – the key will be providing him with the service and support to flourish, particularly as numbers in the opposition box were in short supply again yesterday. The game’s most telling statistic was that the home side failed to successfully complete a single pass in the Arsenal area.
Parker, a study in preparation if there ever was one, would have been disappointed by the way Fulham handed the Gunners a couple of goals yesterday. Those sort of mistakes have to be eliminated and fast. It might be too soon for wholesale changes, but with a second string and a sprinkling of the new signings to be integrated into the League Cup side to play Ipswich on Wednesday night, we might see a gradual evolution away from last season’s eleven. Fulham will know that they can’t afford to be cut adrift at the foot of the table – and the next fortnight offers opportunities to upset the applecart. They will need to take them.