Fulham’s trip to Stamford Bridge on Saturday night presents possibly their last chance at mounting an improbable escape from the drop zone. Relegation isn’t mathematically confirmed, but survival from this position feels as though it would be miraculous. Any scenario that sees Scott Parker’s side vaulting out of the bottom three almost has to include a surprise win in the blue half of SW6. So, how can Fulham defeat Chelsea – something that has only happened eleven times in 86 meetings since 1910 – to extend their survival hopes?
You have to go back to 2006 for the last time a Fulham were victorious in the local derby. Chris Coleman’s tactical masterclass, which saw Steed Malbranque memorably nullifying Claude Makele, and Luis Boa Morte grabbing the iconic winner in the first half was all the more notable for the fact that it was just one of only five defeats Chelsea suffered on their way to lifting the Premier League title at a canter. Coleman’s side ended an eighteen game, 27 year barren run in the local derby to joyous and chaotic scenes on the pitch after the final whistle – creating memories that are still fondly recalled by all of the Fulham faithful.
A win at the weekend feels imperative as Parker’s side have lost form at precisely the wrong time of the season, sitting seven points behind Brighton and Hove Albion with five games to go. Eddie Nketiah’s last-gasp – and controversial – equaliser for Arsenal was a real kick in the teeth and Parker must now plot another surprise victory to go with the ones at Leicester, Everton and Liverpool. Doing so against a Chelsea side reenergised by the arrival of Thomas Tuchel is a serious task.
Since Tuchel took charge in late January, Chelsea have seen an upturn in form, drawing 1-1 in the Champions League semi-finals with fellow Super League villains Real Madrid on Wednesday night. The German likes to line his men up in variations of the 3-4-3 formation, with Rudiger, Thiago Silva and Christensen forming a solid base at the back. This trio, which swaps Zouma for Silva if the ageing Brazillian is unfit, has conceded just 9 games in 22 games under Tuchel, in all competitions. This is even more impressive when considering that five of these goals came in a bizarre 5-2 loss against fellow strugglers West Brom, in what can only be described as a surreal Sam Allardyce special.
Therefore, to understand how to break down and beat Chelsea’s high defensive line, we must use the loss against the Baggies as a case study. From re-watching the goals, and other significant moments, from the highlights, it is clear what Allardyce sent his side out to do. West Bromwich Albion didn’t give the centre backs any space, latching onto their mistakes as they utilised short passing. Their wingers, Pereira and Phillips, pressed high into the space left behind Tuchel’s flying wing backs, allowing the midlands men to outnumber the defenders when on the attack whilst simultaneously helping to silence Chelsea’s attack as Alonso and James were pinned back. Big Sam also exploited the Blue’s high defensive line, which left them incredibly exposed to long balls over the top – an astonishing oversight as this and set pieces are the Bionic Man’s signature moves.
Despite the early red card for Silva, which forced Tuchel to substitute Ziyech for Christensen to maintain the three at the back system, it is clear what Parker must do to exploit the opposition’s systematic frailties. Therefore, I propose that Parker once again deploys the 5-2-3 formation, to which we have now become accustomed. With Ruben Loftus-Cheek unavailable against his parent club, to which many will breath a sigh of relief, and Tom Cairney still recovering from injury, it seems as though there is little option but to drop the number 10 role anyway. Therefore, here is my proposed line-up:
Perhaps controversially, I would suggest dropping Mitrovic. Many have criticised Parker for the Serb’s lack of involvement this season, something which I partly agree with, however, he is very much a player whose performance is dependant on his opposition. His lack of pace may hinder Fulham’s counterattacking ways against such a solid defence, therefore I propose that he should be introduced in the second half, once the front three has worked the opposition’s tired legs.
However, without Mitrovic, who brings some creativity to the line-up, Anguissa should once again be selected after his Arsenal comeback. This may be a risk as Chelsea’s pressing could catch the Cameroonian international off guard – especially should he expose his trait of taking too many touches – but, as stated in my previous article, he adds a creativity from deep (when the system is suitable) which is unrivalled from the players which are currently available. This may be especially important if Parker does look to utilise a counterattacking system. Although, if Anguissa shows that he is more of a liability than an asset, he too should be swapped, with Lemina and Reed offering a robust midfield, if lacking a spark.
The wing backs may prove to be the most crucial component of this system, with West Brom’s own confidently disrupting Chelsea’s system. Therefore, Tete and Robinson would look to remain high up the pitch to limit Chelsea’s numbers going forward. Robinson’s pace also offers an outlet down the left hand side through which Fulham can burst up the pitch, even if his crossing leaves a lot to be desired. Lookman’s crossing, however, is impressive and should be exploited to try and score from set pieces – a long time weakness of Fulham’s – although Andersen, Tosin and Anguissa offer an aerial threat, as does Mitrovic.
Little can be said about Fulham’s defence, other than hopefully Tosin can regain his form, which has been uncharacteristically dodgy as of klate. However, Chelsea pose a large attacking threat, even with Werner not in the rich goal scoring form that he showed at Leipzig. Werner, like Bamford, appears to be a volume striker, taking multiple opportunities to score. Therefore, Scott should look to deploy a low block, stifling the pace advantage that the German possesses and limiting through balls, cutting his threat. This would also force Chelsea to attempt long shots, something that their other attacking talents possess the ability to do but is still much more unlikely to yield rewards from – especially with Anguissa and Reed hunting them down.
How do you feel about the match and this line-up? Can the Whites break the Chelsea curse at the Bridge and prove that there is only one team in Fulham?