After Fulham’s impressive win at Liverpool, Scott Parker faces another stiff test tonight in the shape of runaway league leaders Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s men appear destined to win the Premier League this season – even after losing their incredible 21-match unbeaten record at the hands of local rivals Manchester United. The Citizens are one of the strongest sides in Europe on present form – with plenty of talent and depth in almost every department. The task ahead of Parker, one of the country’s most promising young coaching prospects, looks daunting but the Fulham boss has already insisted that he will send his side out looking to claim all three points.
Guardiola’s philosophy is keenly understood by observers and coaches across the world now and, even if some of the mystique might have worn off given how much time he has now spent in England, it is incredibly tough to beat. The Spaniard favours a 4-3-3 formation, with overlapping full-backs, a hard working holding midfielder, two advanced playmakers in midfield and two inside forwards on the wings. His side are disciples of tiki-taka football, the style Guardiola introduced and refined at Barcelona, which involves short passing at a high tempo to break teams down. City regularly refrain from shooting from distance, looking instead to to bring the ball as close to the goal as possible to increase their chances of scoring. Given the quality at his disposal, though, it is no surprise that City possess plenty of proficient strikers of a ball from range – so there is danger in almost every scenario.
City’s attacking threat is frightening, with the peerless Kevin De Bruyne a metronome in midfied, the lively Raheem Sterling drifting into dangerous areas from out wide and Sergio Aguero, who needs no introduction to Fulham fans. Bernado Silva’s devastating dribbling has come to the fore since his namesake David, a mainstay of previous City sides, finally called time on his career in England. Guardiola has gradually blooded the brilliant Phil Foden, widely considered as England’s next star, in an advanced midfield role and the gifted youngster has delivered a number of eye-catching displays this season. It has been the understated Ikay Gundogan who has topped the Sky Blue scoring charts this season, chipping in with eleven league goals and compensating for Aguero’s injury-plagued season.
City also have a formidable defensive structure with Guardiola’s adoption of the Kevin Keegan mantra that ‘the best way to defend is to attack’ bolstered by a magnificent central defensive partnership in the shape of Portuguese prodigy Ruben Dias, who has slotted in seamlessly since his summer arrival from Benfica, and John Stones, now restored to the first team and targeting an England return in time for the European Championships. Joao Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko, an attack-minded full back who has been retrained from his early role as an attacking midfielder, are serious threats when pushed forward from their defensive positions. That adventurous ethos is afforded the protection of Brazilian international Fernandinho in front of the back four, with Rodri in reserve. Such solidity has meant Manchester City have concededed only 21 goals so far this term – which means Fulham face a mammoth task to score, not just survive.
Given City’s strengths, I think Parker should reinstate his 5-2-3 system for tonight’s match. The additional defender can help to crowd the box and prevent the visitors from flooding into the area, where they are most dangerous. It wouldn’t take much of an adjustment when you consider that Tosin Adarabioyo, Joachim Andersen and Ola Aina have lined up as a central defensive trio successfully already this season. To disrupt City’s usual flow, Parker should use his two central midfielders to pin back Guardiola’s advanced playmakers – reprising the tactics that were so successful at Anfield last Sunday.
Here is my suggested line-up:
Areola is now Fulham’s undisputed starting goalkeeper – and arguably one of the top flight’s most consistent custodians. Andersen and Tosin have forged an incredibly impresive partnership at the heart of the Fulham defence – as Parker highlighted in his pre-match press conference, and Aina’s versatility has seen him drop into centre back effectively already this season. Kenny Tete has shaken off injury setbacks to have a real impact on his return to the side and a right wing-back role should suit the Dutch international, whose crosses are amongst the most accurate at the club. I would bring back Antonee Robinson at left wing-back. The American international has shown Premier League potential in the early stages of the Fulham career even if his final ball has proven a little bit hit and harsh. There are obviously frailities in his game but Robinson’s energy and pace provide a real outlet for Fulham to get forward, especially when City’s full backs are likely to be permanently pushed high.
In midfield, the recent use of Mario Lemina has allowed Harrison Reed to come out of his shell, giving the former Southamptin midfielder license to not only win and shuttle the ball, but also look to do something meaningful and creative with it. Lemina has been excellent since returning to the starting line-up with his brilliant strike at Anfield offering swift retribution for the harsh handball that ruled out a deserved equaliser against Spurs. On recent form, I feel as though this is Parker’s strongest central midfield partnership, with Frank Anguissa struggling for form since Fulham’s COVID outbreak and Loftus-Cheek more of a luxury attacking player at number ten, most useful in games that the Cottagers look to dictate.
Fulham are still struggling to score goals, although Josh Maja demonstrated on debut that he is more than capable of finding the back of the net given regular service. The front three of Maja, an underrated Bobby Decordova-Reid and Ademola Lookman seems like the strongest attacking option for Parker with all three proving at various times this season that they can conjure up magic moments to win games.
As the unstoppable force meets the immovable object, how do you think that the Whites should line-up? And, what do you think are the chances that Scott’s men will be able to win some points?