The overriding emotion walking away from Craven Cottage yesterday afternoon was disappointment that Fulham couldn’t convert their dominance into three points. That was certainly how the players and Marco Silva saw it afterwards and the first fixture serves as a sharp rebuke to the idea that the Whites will walk this division. It never works out that way and Middlesbrough’s muscularity showed just what an adventurous outfit, placing an emphasis on prettier football, will have to overcome in order to bounce straight back.
Neil Warnock was delighted with the point – and justifiably so. His side were well-drilled, robust and kept plugging away despite being a goal down. You wouldn’t expect anything else. Warnock is made for this league and his substitutions changed the complexion of what was becoming a rather one-sided affair. Silva should learn quickly from how Fulham’s advantage unravelled here – there is no doubt that Boro looked the more likely to pinch all three points after Marco Bola’s equaliser.
The new era began brightly and there are plenty of positives that Silva and his backroom staff can point to. The Tete-Wilson axis down the right flank began brilliantly and could be a considerable weapon in this division. The Dutch defender’s sense of adventure and crossing offers a natural attacking outlet that Fulham will need to exploit, especially when Wilson is so adept at drifting off the right flank onto his natural left foot. Wilson’s wizardry will unlock plenty of backlines at this level and the early signs from his interplay with Tete, Josh Onomah, Fabio Carvalho and Aleksandar Mitrovic were particularly positive. He took his goal magnificently and looks a massive upgrade on the enigmatic Anthony Knockaert.
Onomah’s inclusion was something of a surprise but there were plenty of reminders of just how effective he might be as an attacking force from central midfield areas. He released Tete with a couple of perceptive passes into space down the right and did fantastically to offer Wilson a bit of space at the edge of the area for the goal. Whether he can reprise the sort of displays that inspired Fulham’s play-off push under Scott Parker on a consistent basis remains to be seen, but these were encouraging signs. The midfield can only get stronger when Harrison Reed returns to his role in the front of the back four – and that will clearly make Silva’s side tougher to play through.
Silva’s decision to blood Fulham’s promising young talent was perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the afternoon. Francois did very well against an uncompromising midfield moulded in Warnock’s image, moving the ball intelligently in a quietly efficient league debut that has been a long time in coming. Carvalho’s creativity and zest was clear from the outset and he buzzed around to real effect behind the centre forward – having one shot blocked and shooting over after space opened up from a Mitrovic flick on. He will clearly play a key role as the number ten until Tom Cairney’s knees are up to the hurly burly of the Championship.
There was plenty of angst about Mitrovic’s overall display and the fact that he wasn’t able to find the net. I’m of the firm belief that writing off our Serbian talisman is ridiculously rash and there was a sense that his role in the side might be a bit different under Silva. He fashioned a couple of good openings with headers for Carvalho and Ivan Cavaleiro and was effectively managed by Middlesbrough’s centre halves. My feeling is with a bit more gametime in his legs and a first goal – hopefully at Huddersfield next weekend – he will be back to his devastating best. The use of Aboubakar Kamara as a late substitute in search of a winner suggests, however, that the arrival of Rodrigo Muniz can’t come soon enough.
Fulham’s defence was largely untroubled, which makes the fact that the Whites had to settle for point all the more frustrating. There will still be reservations about Antonee Robinson’s defensive diligence – Matt Crooks did seem able to run through him at will at times yesterday – but Tim Ream remains a reassuring presence at the heart of the back four and his partnership with Tosin Adarabioyo, who made a brilliant block right at the death, is a strong foundation for Fulham to build upon.
The final takeaway is two-fold: firstly, having the opportunity to enjoy a game at the Cottage and debate it passionately in person afterwards, is wonderful. Of more immediate importance to Fulham’s season is that the fact that the Silva era is still in its infancy. Patterns of play will take more than ninety minutes to emerge and personnel changes can make what seemed a pretty experimental eleven stronger. Avoid drawing too many cast-iron conclusions from the opening weekend as Fulham can certainly improve on their first outing.