In perhaps the most pivotal match of the season, Scott Parker’s side grabbed a precious three points against Sheffield United last night – emerging from a nervy ninety minutes with the narrowest of advantages courtesy of Ademola Lookman’s second half strike. This was only Fulham’s fourth league win of the season but it offers the Whites some serious momentum at just the right time and lifts them to within three points of safety.
The Blades, despite a debilitating injury crisis were still resolute and tricky to break down, played a 5-3-2 formation as they looked to sit incredibly deep in their own half the back five lined up across their own penalty area. This was a ploy that would render Fulham’s counterattacking strength academic. Instead, it was designed to entice Parker’s men forwards to try and break them down with slower passing moves around Wilder’s charges, who would simply wait for someone to make a mistake before charging forward via their speedy wing backs and and two centre forwards who spent most of the game waiting by the half way line. This did cause a few problems for Fulham, when caught with the bare minimum defenders ready to stop a counter-attack, however, for the most part, Fulham’s back line was relatively undisturbed.
The talking point from the first half was a Fulham counter-attack which started when Ampadu attempted a cross into the Fulham box, which was cleared by Reed into the path of Loftus-Cheek, who took a few steps before passing the ball to Nigerian international Ademola Lookman. The left-sided winger then went on a run from halfway-down the Fulham half to the right-hand side of the half-way line before placing a perfectly balanced through ball into the path of Ivan Cavaleiro on the right hand side. The Portugese winger ran onto this ball, meeting it in the space between the box and the touchline on the right. He dribbled into the Sheffield United box and attempted to shoot from a tight angle from the right side of the goal, with his shot tipped over the bar by Aaron Ramsdale.
In the turgid, slow and relatively uninteresting game of football, which was definitely not one for the neutrals, Fulham’s first half nerves were cooled after Ademola Lookman’s goal in the 61st minute. In fact, this goal did not come from the slow attempt to break down Sheffield United’s deep defence, but instead the White’s were able to catch the Blades at a vulnerable moment as their attempted attack broke down. Therefore, the Cottagers were able to counterattack the Cutlers via a long ball from Andersen which went over the top of Sheffield United’s hardworking midfield and their defensive line to reach Ademola Lookman on the left-hand side corner of the opposition box. Fulham were able to by-pass the 5-3-2 system, which hadn’t allowed for much creativity, as Lookman took the ball down onto his chest, took a few steps further before taking the ball past Ampadu, into the centre of the box, and blasting the ball through Ramsdale’s legs into the goal.
To their immense credit, Sheffield United kept Fulham’s fans on the edge of their seat until the very last. They pushed forward pumping balls in the box but their clearest opening came from a wonderfully worked move. Basham brilliantly found McBurnie in the middle of the field, who neatly controlled the ball and poked it onto Billy Sharp on the edge of the Fulham box. Sharp then laid a neat through ball onto the path of Enda Stevens, who’s effort from the mid-left of the box was thankfully parried away by Alphonse Areola.
Aina nearly made it 2-0 for London’s Originals with another long shot, something that is becoming quite the trend for the versatile Nigerian defender. The move was started by Anguissa on the left wing, who placed the ball into the feet of Ademola Lookman on the edge of the opposition box. Lookman, being pressed by opposition defenders from both behind and to his left, managed to smoothly dribble around both of their challanges and lay the ball of to Loftus-Cheek. The Chelsea man, with his back to the goal, took a few steps before turning to his left and passing to Ola Aina who was in a pocket of space on the right side of the pitch. Aina then met the ball and saw his opportunity to shoot from range, with his powerful, dipping shot headed for the centre of the Hammersmith End goal, before Ramsdale got his right hand to the ball and slapped it over the bar.
This was Fulham’s first real chance which wasn’t from a counter-attack, showing just how hard it was to break down the side from Sheffield, who placed all eight of their defenders and midfielders around the box to block any creativity. Therefore, a long shot can be the easiest way to break this low block, even if they offer a worse quality goal scoring chance than a shot from inside the box. Perhaps Fulham should have taken more long shots to not only try and score but to also force Wilder’ men to adapt and start to press more to prevent this, which could have opened up more creative opportunities as their defence is dragged out of position a little more. However, Parker seemingly sent his side out to play with a higher tempo in the second half, which did create more chances for the Whites, including the goal.
Sheffield United made one last push to take a share of the points via a free kick in added time. As Fleck stood over the ball to the left hand side of the Fulham box, the commentator stated that this could be “the most painful two points dropped of the whole campaign, if Sheffield United were to score now”, and he certainly wasn’t wrong. The Scot put the free kick into the box, with the ball curving around to meet Loftus-Cheek’s head at the far post. This headed ball ten found the head of substitute Kenny Tete, with the resulting header bobbling towards Alphonse Areola in the Putney End net. As Areola hurtled towards the ball to gather it up, Bogle saw his chance to get an equaliser and also ran to meet the ball. Instead, Bogle’s touch on the ball took it from where the Frenchman was swinging his leg to clear the ball, with his kicking leg instead hitting Bogle in the legs. However, before Areola’s leg met Bogle’s, the goalkeeper’s left leg reached the ball and taken it clear of the wing-back. In what can only be described as a 50/50 challenge by both players, in which both also put their body on the line, both then went down in agony and both clutching their legs. Thankfully, for Fulham, the visitors’ penalty appeals were then dispelled by VAR, which from my perspective is only fair given the 50/50 nature of the challenge.
What did you think of the match and the last minute incident?
Fulham: 65.1%, Sheffield United: 34.9%
Fulham: 15, Sheffield United: 4
Shots on target:
Fulham: 7, Sheffield United: 2
Fulham: 1.21, Sheffield United: 0.98
Fulham: 6, Sheffield United: 20
Fulham: 1, Sheffield United: 3
Fulham: 6, Sheffield United: 4
Fulham: Areola (8), Aina (7), Andersen (8), Adarabioyo (7), Robinson (7), Reed (7), Anguissa (7), Lookman (8), Loftus-Cheek (7), Cavaleiro (7), Maja (6).
Subs: Tete (6), Lemina (6), Decordova-Reid (6).
Sheffield United: Ramsdale (7), Baldock (6), Basham (6), Jagieka (6), Bryan (6), Stevens (6), Ampadu (5), Fleck (6), Lundstram (5), Sharp (6), McBurnie (5).
Subs: Norwood (6), McGoldrick (6), Bogle (6).
Man of the match: Ademola Lookman.