There was a moment towards the end of this intriguing London derby that rather encapsulated Fulham’s season so far. Ruben Loftus-Cheek lashed another presentable opportunity agonisingly wide and Scott Parker sunk to the floor, pausing on his knees, in frustration. His side had gradually cranked up the pressure on high-flying West Ham, coming to dominate proceedings, but they failed to find the winner that would have brightened their prospects of beating the drop.
At the start of the season, it was a generosity at the back that looked like being Fulham’s undoing. For a few weeks, they looked like being the whipping boys of the division. Parker worked hard to remodel a side that looked fragile and far too open and, after a switch to five at the back, his charges became far tougher to breakdown. Whether they sacrificed some ambition only he could honestly answer – and the suspicion has always been that Parker is a risk-averse manager – and the limitations are now at the other end of the field. The lack of a predatory instinct now undermines the undoubted improvements the Whites have made over the past three months.
He could consider the fact that David Moyes replaced Michail Antonio, West Ham’s only fit senior striker, with former Fulham defender Ryan Fredericks as the clock ticked down something of a compliment. The Hammers, who came to Craven Cottage on the cusp of the Champions’ League places after picking up twelve points from their last five games, were well drilled and expansive in position but struggled to seriously stretch Alphonse Areola, with the French goalkeeper only called into action to save a snapshot from Declan Rice just before the break.
Parked eschewed his usual 3-4-3 formation for a back four but didn’t include either Aleksandar Mitrovic or new signing Josh Maja in his starting line-up. That meant Ivan Cavaleiro led the line as he has several times since November as the emphasis shifted to a high-tempo pressing game and an attempt to nullify West Ham’s brightest playmakers. That strategy largely worked with Said Benrahma substituted early in the second half and Jesse Lingard, who grabbed a brace on a brilliant debut at Aston Villa in midweek, anonymous for long periods. Jarrod Bowen, a regular thorn in Fulham’s side, came close to touching home a devilish cross from Aaron Creswell but drifted in and out of proceedings.
Fulham were feistier than in the limp capitulation to Leicester and fashioned half chances of their own. Harrison Reed rescued a dangerous situation in his own box, beginning a swift break that culminated with Cavaleiro cutting the ball back for Lookman, who dragged a shot wide from 20 yards out. The lively Leipzig loanee then produced a gorgeous backheel to release Antonee Robinson down the left with the former Wigan full-back’s floated cross headed straight at Lukasz Fabianski by Cavaleiro just before half time.
Belief must have been growing within a Fulham side that have mustered just two league wins all season that a third might not be all that preposterous. The versatile Bobby Decordova-Reid did well to latch onto a raking forward pass from Joachim Andersen but his shot was always rising and flew over the bar. That was a half chance, but Loftus-Cheek was much more culpable a couple of minutes later when he scampered onto Lookman’s lovely defence-splitting ball and had time to lift a finish over Fabianski but only chipped into the side netting. Loftus-Cheek’s most recent displays might be more promising but any uptick will count for little if Fulham continue to pass up such opportunities.
West Ham were gradually being penned back into their own territory. Tomas Soucek, who won an equally tight encounter at the London Stadium with an injury-time strike that had more than element of offside about it, powered a header over before Vladimir Coufal’s far post header rattled the crossbar. Tosin Adarabioyo sent a free header just over the crossbar from a Lookman corner before Cavaleiro contrived to miss another golden chance, shooting wastefully over after Kenny Tete had won the ball back from Rice and Decordova-Reid supplied an inviting pullback.
Parker threw on Mitrovic and Mitrovic with ten minutes remaining and the pair prompted a prolonged period of Fulham pressure. The Serbian striker nearly had an instant impact, seeing one shot deflected wide, and then firing a venomous volley past the near post. Maja’s only sight of goal came when he flicked on a Tete cross for Loftus-Cheek to head hopelessly over, but Mitrovic did turn providing – shielding the ball brilliantly to create space for Loftus-Cheek again, only for the Chelsea loanee to drive wide of goal.
There was late drama when Soucek was sent off for elbowing Mitrovic at a West Ham free-kick after Mike Dean had consulted the pitchside monitor, but the stoppage time red card came too late to significantly alter the contest. The point leaves still eight points from safety – and Parker will soon have to ditch his pragmatism in search of the sort of winning run that carried Roy Hodgson’s men to their memorable escape in 2008. Gallant draws just won’t be enough.
FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Areola; Tete, Robinson (Maja 79), Andersen, Adarabioyo; Reed, Lemina (Mitrovic 79); Decordova-Reid (Anguissa 83), Lookman, Loftus-Cheek; Cavaleiro. Subs (not used): Rodak, Aina, Hector, Ream, Bryan, Onomah.
WEST HAM UNITED (4-2-3-1): Fabianksi; Coufal, Cresswell, Ogbonna, Dawson; Rice, Soucek; Bowen (Noble 56), Benrahma (Yarmolenko 56), Lingard; Antonio (Fredericks 74). Subs (not used): Martin, Balbuena, Diop, Johnson, Fornals, Lanzini.
BOOKED: Ogbonna, Fabianski, Yarmolenko.
SENT OFF: Soucek (90+7).
REFEREE: Mike Dean (Cheshire).
VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Lee Mason (Lancashire).