At a misty AMEX Stadium, there were ninety minutes of mediocrity. This meeting of relegation rivals had plenty of nervy moments, a fair few mistakes but not much quality to engage any neutrals. Perhaps it was no surprise it ended in a stalemate after the draw before Christmas at Craven Cottage, but – until the very dying embers of the contest – Fulham offered little as an attacking threat.
In order to offer an objective view of what took place down on the south coast, I felt it best to sleep on things, especially given the miserable immediate reaction on social media. The formation has to be our first talking point. At first, it appeared to be a departure from the norm – it looked like a 4-2-3-1, as I indicated in a piece last night, and The Athletic’s Peter Rutzler held that opinion too. Seeing Scott Parker stick to his favoured three centre backs with Bobby Decordova-Reid at left wing-back was something of a surprise.
On paper, this looked like a clever Parker ploy, designed to exploit Brighton’s use of Veltman – normally a centre back – as a right wing-back in the absence of Lamptey. Fulham certainly started well, with the Whites having 71% of possession in the opening ten minutes, and Ola Aina going close with a rasping drive from distance. Decordova-Reid was able to pin Veltman back deep in his own half and supplementing the Fulham attack, operating more as a left winger than a wing-back.
But Brighton got to the grips with the plan after about fifteen minutes. Fulham’s high pressing forward line was effectively a front four, with Loftus-Cheek on the right, Cavaliero in the centre, Lookman in the left half-space and Decordova-Reid over on the left touchline. As Bobby powered down the touchline, he would leave a worrying whole behind him. Tosin Adarabioyo, the left sided centre back, attempted to cover shuffling into the left half-space and splitting the centre backs.
Brighton were alive to exploiting those spaces, gaining possession thanks to some uncharacteristically sloppy Fulham passing, distributing it to Bissouma or Gross, who quickly looked to find Veltman in the gaps between De Cordova-Reid and Adarabioyo. Veltman then usually attempted to cross it into the box from a deep position. Luckily, nothing ever came from these repeated plays, somehow. The Whites also were generous in giving the ball away in dangerous areas. Aina was a particular culprit, losing the ball on the right, but nobody was immune. Fortunately, Brighton’s lack of ruthlessness in the final third matched our own and little came from their sixteen shots, largely thanks to the excellence of Alphonse Areola.
As Fulham gradually got overwhelmed in midfield, a succession of set pieces posed their own problems. Set plays are one of Brighton’s biggest strengths due to the sheer height of their centre backs, standing at 6’4”, 6’1” and 6’7” respectively. Again a goal didn’t materialise but with Dunk heading one straight at Areola and both Mupay and Gross putting chances from free kicks over the bar, it was much to close for comfort.
Fulham struggled to create clear chances, not troubling Robert Sanchez at all in the first period. The forward players often kept hold of the ball too long, taking too many touches or dwelling in possession and having other options cut off. Two of Fulham’s best openings were plagued by poor decision making. Cavaleiro made a storming run from halfway in the first half but failed to hit the target when Loftus-Cheek and Lookman were available either side of him. In the last minute of injury time, Fulham’s best move of the match almost sealed the ultimate smash and grab raid. Mitrovic, demonstrating his ability as a focal point up front, held the ball up superbly and released Bryan with a brilliant backheel. The other substitute’s cross was low and flat and Lookman’s touch took it into the path of Loftus-Cheek, but the Chelsea loanee’s shot was instinctively blocked by Lewis Dunk. Loftus-Cheek was probably always going to shoot, but he did have Mitrovic square of him for the cut back.
A win would have been a travesty on the balance of play and, all in all, Areola saved Fulham from a damaging defeat. Not for the first time, last night showed that Fulham struggle to finish off games against sides they arguably should be beating – and probably need a ‘plan B’ to switch to when Parker’s pragmatic approach isn’t working. Mitrovic, who offered more in his ten minute cameo than Cavaleiro had all evening, would be the player to use in this scenario: his physical strength disrupts opposing defenders and he can link the play impressively. If the Whites are likely to have more possession against sides in the lower reaches of the table, the Serbian’s lack of pace and mobility should be less of an issue and he would be well suited to games like the one coming up against West Brom. In the absence of a new attacking arrival, he simply has to start at the Hawthorns.
What are your thoughts on the game and how Fulham could improve?