The first in a series of critical clashes against our relegation rivals since Fulham travel to Turf Moor to take on Burnley tomorrow night. Buoyed by an unexpected triumph on Merseyside on Sunday night, Scott Parker’s side can suddenly sniff some momentum in their battle against the drop. The Whites are now seven points off safety with fifteen games to play and, whilst survival still looks like a tall order, there’s no doubting that they have the stomach for the fight. After ending their Goodison Park curse whilst simultaneously snapping a thirteen-match winless streak, Fulham will be now be targeting a first win at Burnley since 1951.
It certainly won’t be easy against Burnley, whose continued upsetting of the English footballing applecart remains one of the game’s most unheralded stories. Sean Dyche’s style might be uncompromising but it is effective – and all of his players know their roles. Christened ‘the Ginger Mourinho’ Dyche has unapologetically adopted an old-fashioned 4-4-2 (cruelly described in some quarters as ‘Brexit Ball’) and his slavish adherence to the system means Burnley are notoriously hard to break down. The Clarets have a miserly defence – conceding 4.72 fewer than their expected goals against – which is the third best in the league, behind Manchester City and Parker’s own improving backline.
Burnley are content to work to their tried and tested modus operandi, sitting deep, soaking up the pressure and punishing opposition errors. There are ideally set up to wreak havoc on the counter-attack, with a midfield designed to pinch possession and feed a target man – mostly regularly the underrated New Zealand striker Chris Wood, who usually features as part of a traditional ‘big man, little man’ strike partnership. Dyche’s side is somewhat disrupted presently, with Burnley having seven starters on the treatment table at the moment.
This includes top scorer Wood and former Fulham academy graduate Johann Berg Gudmundsson, the Icelandic winger, who scored one of Burnley’s goals in their impressive 3-0 win at Crystal Palace last weekend. The injury list extends to both of Burnley’s natural left backs, in former Leeds defender Charlie Taylor and Dutch full-back Erik Pieters, and – perhaps most importantly – centre half Ben Mee. The commanding Mee, who will miss the Fulham game through the concussion protocols after sustaining a head injury at Selhurst Park, is a leader who forms a formidable partnership with former Brentford defender James Tarkowski at the heart of Dyche’s first choice back four. Burnley lost five of the six games he has missed this season, conceding twelve goals. In the period that Mee was out of the side, Burnley have lost 45.5% of their total eleven defeats this season and conceded 41.4% of the 29 goals they’ve let in.
Burnley sit deep, soaking up pressure and waiting for the opposition to make a mistake before counterattacking via a midfield designed to win the ball back then quickly transition the play up to a big target man, who either takes a shot himself or knocks it onto his smaller counterpart. The classic ‘big man, little man’ 4-4-2 playing style.
However, Burnley’s starting line-up is currently somewhat disturbed, with the Clarets having 7 players on the treatment table at the moment. This includes their top scorer, Chris Wood, as well as Johann Gudmundsson, the Icelandic winger who scored in Burnley’s 3-0 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday. The list of injured players also includes both of the Claret’s natural left-backs, Charlie Taylor and Erik Pieters, and, perhaps most critically, centre back Ben Mee.
Ben Mee, who sustained a head injury against Crystal Palace, is one of Burnley’s most important players. Not only does he often captain the side, but he also forms one half of a strong defensive partnership with James Tarkowski – a duo at the heart of a defence that constantly outperforms its XGA. In fact, to show Mee’s true value to Burnley, Burnley lost 5 of the 6 games that he has missed this season and conceded 12 goals in these 6 games. This means that in these 6 games in which he has been absent, Burnley have lost 45.5% of their total 11 losses this season and conceded 41.4% of the total 29 goals that they have conceded so far.
Burnley’s predicament this season is largely a result of their relatively poor displays at home. Turf Moor has a reputation as something of a fortress but the Clarets have lost five home matches already this year, conceding thirteen goals in eleven fixtures. They lost just seven at home throughout the entirety of last season – and there’s a strong case to be made that they are missing the atmosphere created by their boisterous home crowd. It might be the perfect time for Fulham to turn Turf Moor into a happy place at long last, but success will still be tough to come by. Parker will need to get his team selection spot on.
My initial thoughts were that this fixture appeared ideal for Aleksander Mitrovic, with pace not a prerequisite to beat Burnley’s deep defensive line and the Serbian’s physicality would have suited what could be something of a blood and thunder encounter. In light of Mitrovic’s untimely positive coronavirus diagnosis, Fulham should seek some continuity and stick with the 4-2-3-1 system that proved so successful against West Ham and, especially, Everton on Sunday. The visitors should set out to dominate possession again, using a number ten to unlock the home defence, which should be the perfect role for Ruben Loftus-Cheek – even if he’s still struggling to find his shooting boots!
My preferred Fulham line-up would look like this:
I feel Ola Aina should remain at left back after an excellent display on Merseyside. The Nigerian international’s versatility is a real asset and he linked up encouragingly with his compatriots, displaying the understanding you would expect having operated alongside Tosin Adarabioyo for much of the season, but seeking to get beyond Ademola Lookman and supplying Josh Maja regularly. Aina was not only defensively solid, but he also added attacking penetration which Robinson looks to be lacking at present, with impressive dribbling down the left flank and consistently good crosses – he can also score from long range as shown by his impressive goal against West Bromwich Albion in November. Kenny Tete enjoyed an excellent game against Everton – suggesting that he is rediscovering his best form with strong tackles and he should offer an attacking threat down the opposite flank.
The other pressing question is whether to reintroduce Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa into the midfield. Initially, I considered this a no brainer as his strength and dribbling ability could be real assets against a more physical side. But, after careful consideration and a discussion with a few other Fulham fans, I’ve changed my mind. Although Mario Lemina was substituted against Everton, he was fantastic at Goodison Park and deserves an opportunity to continue his blossoming partnership with Harrison Reed in the centre of the park. Anguissa is best deployed as a segundo volante and, with a number 10 in the line-up, his individual creativity is reduced. Anguissa’s return might also inhibit Reed’s own attacking output, which is the last thing we need after the former Southampton midfielder’s man-of-the-match performance at the weekend. It is worth remembering that Anguissa has clearly been affected by Fulham’s coronavirus outbreak – and there will be plenty of opportunities for him to make a big contribution before the end of the season.
What do you think of this line-up? Can Fulham finally get a win at Turf Moor? Give us your insights below.