Yesterday afternoon at Ashton Gate brought breathlessness and, ultimately, more disappointment. The bald facts from Fulham’s last two Championship matches tell you clearly where the problem lies: 47 shots, ten on target, two goals. An awesome August has given way to a stuttering September that has seen Marco Silva’s side drop points to Blackpool, Reading and Bristol City. If the wheels aren’t quite falling off Fulham’s promotion juggernaut, the vehicle certainly don’t look like the well-oiled machine that swept aside opponents in some style in the early weeks of the season.
Silva singled out the officials for criticism after Fulham’s latest setback but, in truth, he was as off target as his misfiring forwards. Yes, Kasey Palmer’s equaliser should have been disallowed for offside – that appeared clear to the naked eye, but the visitors were guilty of missing a succession of chances both before and after the leveller. The chief culprit was Aleksandar Mitrovic, who could easily have had a hat trick in stoppage time alone, although the Serbian striker was far from alone in squandering glorious openings. Both Neeskens Kebano and Harry Wilson also wasted glorious chances when it seemed easier to score – and that failure to be clinical proved very costly.
The Fulham head coach was also upset at how long it took his side to dictate the play. He glowered briefly before charging down the tunnel at half time – perhaps an insight into how fiery his team talk might have been – and the two changes that enlivened his side immediately after the interval were even more evidence of his unhappiness. But the balance of Fulham’s midfield felt off from the start: Nathaniel Chalobah, who took time to settle into his debut at Birmingham, has failed to follow up that encouraging overall performance in two subsequent outings, Josh Onomah flitted in and out of this contest and, plainly, Jean-Michael Seri is not a defensive midfielder.
Fulham looked far more combative and sprightly once Harrison Reed entered proceedings, but it remains to be seen whether Silva will recognise that the ginger-haired schemer is best deployed at the base of the midfield, especially now that Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen have departed. Saturday showed that the new management appear eager to reinvent Reed into a more adventurous raider from the engine room, when his reading of the game and ability to snuff out danger could have been better used to diffuse the Robins’ rousing revival midway through the second period.
Fulham might have been far too passive at the outset against Nigel Pearson’s disciplined two banks of four, but they also failed to adjust after the City manager switched to a back three and threw caution to the wind. Questions have been asked before about the ticker of a team that seems set up to ambush teams going forward and the Whites looked briefly befuddled by their opponents’ own sense of adventure following Pearson’s move to a 3-4-1-2. Palmer profited from finding pockets of space in front of the Fulham back four when he came on and, had Nakhi Wells showed some composure in front of goal, the hosts might have snapped up a second. Game management is one of modern football’s most in-vogue terms: Fulham had none of it in BS3.
Silva’s side clearly miss the creativity of Fabio Carvalho and Kenny Tete at right back, but such is the quality in the squad at the Portuguese head coach’s disposal they can’t quibble about the odd injury. Teams have worked out how to deal with Fulham’s attacking arsenal and when the Whites aren’t able to match the opposition’s tenacity or intensity, they don’t deserve to come away with three points. Rodrigo Muniz has shown enough in three appearances to suggest he might be a source of something different so the decision to send on Ivan Cavaleiro with Fulham hunting a winner in the closing stages was particularly perplexing. One defeat might be a wake up call, two hints at a problem – and, after all the chances that came and went, yesterday’s point felt like another opportunity missed. It is early in the season, and it would be a much bigger worry were the Whites not incisive enough, but Silva sorely needs a ‘plan B’.