Aston Villa cruised to a comfortable three-goal win at Craven Cottage tonight as Scott Parker’s switch to a back three failed to end Fulham’s defensive frailties. Any solace that might have arrived courtesy of a deal to bring in Brazilian centre back Marlon evaporated before kick-off, with the news that his proposed switch from Sassuolo has fallen through, and – even after just three games – the task to survive the drop appears pretty herculean.
This was another hefty defeat that felt self-inflicted. Parker seems to have been dealt a hospital pass as Fulham haven’t strengthened in central defence, not just their achiles heel in the top flight two seasons ago but a consistent problem even during their ultimately successful Championship campaign last year, but the switch to three centre halves only exacerbated the problems in front of Alphone Areola, who is the club’s seventh goalkeeper in their last fifty top flight matches.
Fulham’s new shape did allow Kenny Tete to advance into promising positions from right wing back before he was forced off with an untimely calf injury, but by that point the game looked well beyond the home side. Michael Hector did manage to block a powerful early drive from John McGinn, but Dean Smith’s side hit the front in the fourth minute through a simple move. McGinn floated a through ball between the Fulham centre backs for Jack Grealish, who had glided away from Denis Odoi far too easily, and the England international kept his composure to slide a cool finish past Areola. That Fulham were the architects of their own downfall, with Joe Bryan opting to try and play out from the back rather than clear his lines would not have improved Parker’s mood.
The hosts’ best source of an equaliser appeared to be through Tete down the right, but try as he might Aleksandar Mitrovic was unable to beat the excellent Emiliano Martinez in the visiting goal. The closest he came was probably with his first effort of the evening, a header that deflected off Matty Cash and looped up for the goalkeeper to claim easily.
Fulham looked a bundle of nerves when they were attacked and the next time Villa moved into the final third it was 2-0. They were unlocked far too easily from an attacking throw-in with Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Tom Cairney affording Grealish far too much time to cut in from the left flank. There was too much space for Villa’s talisman to pick a pass and, even when McGinn took a heavy touch as he turned away from a defender, Conor Hourihane was there to sweep into the far corner from eight yards.
Ollie Watkins spurned a glorious chance to grab his first Villa goal since a move from Brentford after Grealish had played him in on the edge of the box after Fulham were caught on the break again, whilst Fulham’s pretty approach play faltered when they reached the edge of the Villa box. Mitrovic toiled manfully with most of his efforts off target, but the futility of a dispiriting first half was summed up when Ivan Cavaleiro lashed a pretty presentable opening high into the Putney End after Grealish had attempted a risky switch of play on the edge of his own penalty area.
Any hopes of a rousing second half to match Fulham’s spirited comeback at Elland Road last week evaporated within three minutes of the restart. Odoi conceded a free-kick for hauling down Grealish as he looked set to break away down the left flank, but the marking was laughably non-existent when Hourihane’s delivery found Tyrone Mings bursting away from a clutch of players at the edge of the penalty area to prod a finish past a helpless Areola. No amount of tactical tweakery will rescue a side that keeps making such elementary mistakes.
Villa might have had more and to their credit Parker’s charges continued to push. Their lifeline – handed to them when Bobby Decordova-Reid pounced after Martinez had spilled a speculative shot from Kamara – was snatched away after the video assistant referee spotted a foul by Mitrovic on Erzi Konsa. Mitrovic sent further headers wide of goal before an Anguissa piledriver was scrambled off the line and, just to underline that it wasn’t going to be Fulham’s night, Martinez made a splendid save to turn a curler from Bryan onto the crossbar in stoppage time. This could be a very long – and painful – season indeed.
FULHAM (3-4-3): Areola; Odoi, Hector (Le Marchand 58), Ream; Tete (Kamara 39), Bryan, Anguissa, Cairney; Decordova-Reid (Kebano 78), Cavaleiro, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rodak, Robinson, Onomah, Knockaert.
BOOKED: Decordova-Reid, Cairney, Bryan, Odoi, Le Marchand, Kamara.
ASTON VILLA (4-3-3): Martinez; Cash, Targett, Mings, Konsa; Luiz (Nakamba 87), Hourihane (J. Ramsey 77), McGinn; Grealish, Trezeguet (Traore 84), Watkins. Subs (not used): Steer, Hause, Elmohamady, Davis.
BOOKED: Targett, McGinn, Mings.
GOALS: Grealish (4), Hourihane (15), Mings (48).
REFEREE: Stuart Attwell (Nuneaton).
VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (West Yorkshire).