If we were dealing in footballing clichés, this would be your classical six pointer. It may only be the second weekend of the season but a clash between two of the newly promoted sides at Elland Road already appears pivotal. Leeds, who received plenty of plaudits for their swashbuckling style as they nearly embarrassed Liverpool on the opening day, will view this as an ideal opportunity to get their Premier League return up and running and, after the damaging 3-0 reverse that dealt such a blow to Fulham’s hopes of automatic promotion after lockdown earlier this summer, Scott Parker will be under no illusions as to the size of the task in front of his players.
Marcelo Bielsa reportedly told the Fulham boss that the result should have been other way around after the Whites had dominated the first half of that open encounter, only to be felled by their familiar defensive frailties. It is one of the oddities of a shortened summer that Fulham have failed to address their vulnerabilities at centre half heading into a top flight campaign and Parker will probably have little choice but to pair Tim Ream and Michael Hector together again in Yorkshire this afternoon, despite both looking far from the standard required in last week’s loss to Arsenal at Craven Cottage.
Bielsa, a master tactician whose innovation and eye for detail are second to none, will probably seek to exploit the space between Fulham’s full backs as well. Leeds ruthlessly targeted the right flank in June, eventually profiting from the areas vacated by Joe Bryan in particular, and the visitors will need to be prepared for another stern examination of their durability. To date, Bielsa has remained largely loyal to his Championship winners where possible – and, in fairness, he continues to coax extraordinary levels of players from many of his players.
Consider the consistency of Luke Ayling, who raised his level when Leeds looked like they were wobbling in pursuit of promotion, and the fact that Stuart Dallas, a scourge of Fulham from his Brentford days, is now considered a more than dependable option at left-back, despite being far from a natural in that position. Nobody should need reminding of how Bielsa has converted Kalvin Philipps into one of the country’s most promising holding midfielders and few players in recent years have been more deserving of elevation to the England squad. Even Patrick Bamford, a willing worker up front whose place in the side was largely expected to be filled by recent record signing Rodrigo, delivered an emphatic message to the doubters with a lovely finish at Liverpool. There are plenty more figures whose own outstanding performances have crept under the radar, including Mateusz Klich, who offers both energy and quality in midfield.
The bookmakers, and most of the pundits, see this as a mismatch. Fulham, possibly much more suited to playing away from home in Parker’s preferred system, are a 5/1 shot to bring home three points this afternoon. Parker has plenty to ponder, as he acknowledged during Thursday’s pre-match press conference. He has some dilemma in goal, even if Marek Rodak is expected to keep the starting spot for now, despite the arrival of Alphonese Areola. You would bank on Kenny Tete coming in at right back, particularly after he fizzed in the sort of ball Aleksandar Mitrovic thrives on to secure progression in the League Cup at Ipswich on Wednesday. The Fulham head coach could play Robinson behind Bryan to give Bielsa something else to think about on the other flank as well as shoring up one of those historical weaknesses.
Midfield is the most interesting area for me. Parker has yet to make significant changes to the side that clinched promotion, but the temptation to pair Andre-Frank Anguissa and Mario Lemina in central midfield after their encouraging performances at Portman Road must be huge. This feels like the sort of game where Fulham could do with a powerful double pivot to screen the back four and it appears to be the fixture tailor made for Anguissa to showcase how his own game has developed during that season in Spain. Getting the balance of that midfield will be vital and Tom Cairney, still with plenty to prove in the Premier League, might no longer be an automatic pick, as Chris argued in this piece earlier in the week. The skipper seems to raise his game against Leeds, fuelled by the lingering memories of being released by them on account of his size as a teenager, and has lost ten once in ten appearances, having a hand in seven goals.
To stand any chance of springing a surprise this afternoon, Fulham need to do more than simply prove more diligent than they were against Arsenal. A threat in the opposition box was sorely lacking last weekend, something that Mitrovic’s mere presence should help with, but the Serbian striker – assuming he avoids another flare up with a centre half this time – will need numbers around him regularly. Parker’s system has far too often isolated their most proven Premier League performer. That can’t happen again today.
MY FULHAM XI (4-2-3-1): Rodak; Tete, Bryan, Hector, Ream; Reed, Anguissa; Kamara, Kebano, Cairney; Mitrovic. Subs: Areola, Odoi, Robinson, Lemina, Onomah, Cavaleiro, Knockaert.