Yesterday’s goalless draw with West Ham was ultimately another frustrating night for Fulham fans. Scott Parker’s side were the more dominant force over the ninety minutes but once again couldn’t put away their chances. Draws will do little to aid Fulham’s predicament at the wrong end of the table and we must be getting to the point where even the Whites’ manager will concede that upcoming fixtures fall into the must win category.
Parker did at least deviate from his preferred five at the back formation – for the first time in twelve weeks – preferring a back four and largely matching West Ham’s 4-2-3-1. The personnel chosen might not have been adventurous enough for many supporters, however, with Aleksandar Mitrovic benched and Josh Maja only named as a substitute as Ivan Cavaleiro returned as a lone striker. An element of caution might have been understandable, given the way West Ham had swept aside Aston Villa in an impressive away win in midweek, and it was encouraging that despite sacrificing a defender, Fulham restricted West Ham to just eight shots – only one of which forced a save from Alphonse Areola.
Even if the focus was on a higher press and shackling the likes of Jesse Lingard, Said Benrahma and Jarrod Bowen in the forward areas, Fulham were far more creative than in the recent reverse at the hands of Leicester. Ruben Loftus-Cheek had a much more effective game, operating as a number ten behind Cavaleiro, pulling the strings from a number ten role rather than operating out wide. The Chelsea loanee thrived in the pockets of space he found centrally, as he had against West Brom a couple of weeks ago, and helped the hosts enjoy more of the ball as Fulham had 61% possesion.
This might well have been eerily similar to the ‘Parkerball’ of our Championship promotion season, with lots of pretty passing in front of the opposition and, in the end, precious little end project. But Fulham did muster twenty shots in total and the familiar failing of not hitting the target looks like it will come back to haunt them at the end of the season. Only two tested Lukasz Fabianski in the West Ham goal and you wonder how look it will be before Parker operates with one of Maja or Mitrovic up front from the outset – or even pairs them together, given how big a threat Fulham looked once they were both sent on with ten minutes remaining. Mitrovic as a focal point would certainly give opposition defenders more to think about, even if he doesn’t possess the mobility that Parker probably desires in his main front man. It does feel like this system is crying out for a Callum Wilson-esque striker, one who combines pace with natural goalscoring ability and some experience of a top flight relegation battle.
Mitrovic’s major combination was getting Tomas Soucek sent off in the dying seconds. That incident went to VAR deep into stoppage time, with Mike Dean opting to dismiss the Czech midfielder after consulting the pitchside monitor even though the elbow didn’t appear intentional. The general consensus seems to be that the red card was harsh – something that Mitrovic seemed to tell both Dean and Soucek, despite staying on the floor after the incident. The Serbian striker certainly perked up Fulham’s attack, having a couple of shots drift wide within a couple of minutes of coming on, and laying on another glorious chance for Loftus-Cheek.
The law of averages suggests that some of these shots have to go in eventually, surely? Fulham missed out on Josh King, who came on as a late substitute in Everton’s thrilling draw at Old Trafford last night, on deadline day and Parker turned to Josh Maja late on, sending on the on-loan Bordeaux forward as they searched for a winner. The Nigerian international, back at the club where he spent some time as a teenager, still seems a little raw – but he linked the play impressively without really having a significant sight of goal and Maja will gradually get more game time as he steps up to match sharpness. Becoming more clinical up top is the final piece in Parker’s puzzle, as the manager conceded afterwards, and the forthcoming trips to Goodison Park and Turf Moor – two places where Fulham traditionally struggle – would be good places to put things right.
How do you think that Parker can solve this? Would a more adventurous approach pay dividends? And, what did you think of Soucek’s late red?