Doesn’t the table look much sweeter after a victory? Scott Parker might insist that he will learn little from Fulham’s elevation to seventeenth place, but in terms of the fans’ morale those three points and a sniff of safety – even at this early stage – makes a real difference. Beating the other strugglers is the bread and butter of a relegation fight (something the Whites haven’t consistently mustered in the past) and, however poor West Brom were last night, Fulham dispatched them with a real ruthlessness that bodes well for the weeks ahead.
Parker deserves huge credit for engineering a victory when both goals and points looked tough to come by. His key alterations from the defeat by Crystal Palace, where the same sort of problems dogged a ponderous side, were hugely vindicated. Ruben Loftus-Cheek comes to Craven Cottage with real pedigree, but a lack of form and fitness has undermined his undoubted talent in recent years. He might have been ill-served by being shoved out on the right against Palace, but there was a listlessness about his play that Fulham couldn’t afford. Compare and contrast with Bobby Decordova-Reid, who approached the right wing role with hunger, bagging the opening goal as his reward – and the Jamaican forward could easily had another late on.
The boon was the introduction of Joachim Andersen – significantly ahead of schedule after his ankle injury – at centre back. You sense our survival hopes are intertwined with the Danish defender’s fitness and fortunes. He was composed, comfortable in possession and regularly in the right position, something you couldn’t say about some of his predecessors in our back line, reading danger reassuringly. There will be far stiffer tests to come but this was encouraging start at tackling the team’s Achilles heel. Building a partnership with Toisin Adarabioyo, who put together another strong display, will help build confidence as well as a back four that can avoid basic mistakes.
There was clearly a change in approach from the early weeks of the season. We’ve speculated before about whether Parker’s approach will be better suited to the top flight than the Jokanovic method and perhaps this was the first time the manager’s pragmatism bore fruit. Fulham had just 46% of possession, having dominated the ball against all opponents bar Arsenal this season, but they used it far more effectively in the final third. A more direct approach didn’t dovetail with an abundance of caution, as seen from the thrust provided by the frequent forward forays of our full backs, but it did play to the strengths of Aleksandar Mitrovic, as evidenced by the Serbian’s pair of assists – a first for him in English league football.
Mitrovic, who has come in for his critics at times this season, thrives on the sort of service that Antonee Robinson delivered for the first goal. The thrust came from Andre-Frank Anguissa, dynamic from a deep lying midfield position, and Robinson’s deep cross was perfect for Mitrovic to attack at the back post. That he aimed across goal after soaring high showed both his own awareness and the value of flooding the box with numbers, which Fulham have failed to do enough this season, and Decordova-Reid could hardly miss with his own header from close range.
Robinson was a potent threat all night, utterly justifying his selection ahead of Joe Bryan, but also showed commendable defensive skills when necessary. His pace provides a real outlet down the left flank and, as Ademola Lookman and he develop a greater understanding, there could be real joy down that side. Ola Aina probably won’t ever strike a ball better than he did for that stunning second, demonstrating that he was genuinely two-footed, but the precise passing and movement that created the space for the strike shouldn’t go unnoticed. Moving the ball with purpose and at pace creates opportunities – and that has to be the lesson to take from this success rather than returning to the ponderous possession-based stuff that is easy to defend against for disciplined sides at this level.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Fulham’s success last night are the options that Parker has at his disposal in midfield. Mario Lemina offered both energy and significant cover in front of the back four, delivering the kind of display that explained why the Whites were keen to recruit him. In his own understated way, Harrison Reed showed just how important an acquisition he was with another excellent second half cameo – and the competition for places is exceedingly healthy. Anguissa, one sloppy mistake aside when he gifted Karlan Grant an opportunity to bring the Baggies back in the game, strode through the centre of the park like a colossus. We didn’t see enough of his creative side two seasons ago, but they was plenty to like about his direct running into the heart of Albion territory, often allied with a forward pass. Tom Cairney dictated proceedings with that air of arrogance that has sometimes been missing from his displays at this level, but his imprint was all over this performer. The captain attracted some silly internet carping for featuring both his goal and a place in the Premier League team of the week on his Instagram after the Palace reverse but he answered those critics in the best way possible, with a first-class performance that deserved to be capped by a delightful chip that so nearly brought a third goal.
Nobody should be under illusions that this fixes all the problems that have surfaced in the first couple of months of the step up to the Premier League. West Brom were woeful, a fact that Slaven Bilic bluntly acknowledged afterwards, and Fulham’s fixture list throws up some significant tests in the next few weeks: West Ham away, Everton at home, Leceister City away, followed by a trip to Manchester City and the hosting of Liverpool in December. Parker struck the right tone afterwards, emphasising the importance of continuing the learning on the training pitches and building on this success, but momentum is vital in this league and, after weeks of woe, this result will do wonders for Fulham’s confidence.