This might rank as one of the most frustrating weekends since Fulham rejoined English football’s elite. The Whites’ narrow defeat against Chelsea was infuriating enough, but the outcome would have been hinted at by the history books and the complexion of a competitive contest was radically altered by Antonee Robinson’s rash challenge on the stroke of half time when Scott Parker’s side were having their best spell of the game. What made the derby reverse all the more galling was the fact that fellow strugglers West Bromwich Albion and Brighton and Hove Albion had already picked up impressive away wins, leaving Fulham just a single point above Sam Allardyce’s new charges, four points from safety and five behind Albion.
How terminal that position is remains to be seen. It is important to acknowledge that in this, a season like no other, there is still plenty of football to be played. We are yet to hit the halfway point of the campaign – and Fulham, after weathering a coronavirus outbreak within their own squad, have at least one game in hand on all of the teams around them. The main reason for hope is that Parker’s side look unrecognisable from the callow outfit that was swatted aside so easily at the start of the season, having switched their shape and acquired a defensive diligence that is keeping them in games until the very end. Recent results, with determined draws against the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham, suggest that Fulham can compete against the division’s top sides, and Parker’s men have crucial clashes against both Brighton and West Brom to come before the month is out.
On the flip side, Fulham have only recorded two victories – already the wins against West Brom and Leicester seem a long time ago – and stringing wins together is the only way to mount a successful survival bid. The need for three points grows with every week, especially with our relegation rivals grabbing surprise triumphs here and there. Parker’s switch to three at the back might have made his previously leaky defence more solid but he has sacrificed some potency at the other end of the pitch. They have only scored three times in their last five league matches and are desperate for striking reinforcements, something only highlighted by Ivan Cavaleiro’s glaring miss against Chelsea.
So, as the conclusion to the January transfer window moves into sharper focus over the next fortnight, getting attackers in – arguably in time for those showdowns against the Albions – becomes pivotal to Fulham’s safety bid. Without high quality back up to an alarming out-of-form Aleksandar Mitrovic at the very least, Parker’s side will probably continue to fluff their lines in front of goal. Cavaleiro toils manfully up top but he’s far from a natural finisher or the nippy number nine that this system requires. The usual links to Dwight Gayle and Josh King have resurfaced in the last week, but we must hope that negotiations to land a forward are carrying on quietly behind the scenes.
It essentially comes down to how positive you feel. Is Fulham’s glass half full, or half empty? The optimists will point to Parker’s bravery in switching to five at the back and the fact that the best teams in the land have struggled to breach Fulham’s defence in the past few weeks. His achievement in knitting together an entirely new back three, as well as the masterstroke of deploying Bobby Decordova-Reid as a roving wing-back, certainly shouldn’t be understated. But goals win games and Fulham aren’t scoring enough of them. A gap has started to open up between the Whites and safety at just the wrong time – so if you are pessimistic in nature, the signs of another demotion from the top flight, are probably all already flashing. Parker is probably accruing a decade’s worth of managerial experience from his first job – but it will rank as one of the best achievements in top flight history should he guide the Whites to safety.