If there was a perception that Fuham might prove a soft touch on their travels following the weekend defeat at Blackpool, then Marco Silva’s side dispelled it last night at St. Andrew’s. The manner of the victory was instructive. Fulham were far from in full control. Birmingham battled, slung in a succession of crosses and at times looked to be dominating the midfield battle but Lee Bowyer’s side were ultimately sunk by Fulham’s ruthlessness in front of goal.
Silva said afterwards that Harry Wilson was the first player he approached the board about after agreeing to take over from Scott Parker in the summer. It is obvious to see why. Wilson has some pedigree at this level – and totally transforms Fulham as an attacking proposition when he is in the side. A willing and intelligent runner, whose darts inside are likely to deliver plenty of goals, he can also whip in a dangerous corner – something the Whites have sorely missed in recent years. His signature move, cutting in from the right flank onto his stronger right foot, seems far less predictable that Anthony Knockaert’s and, in this irrepressible form, the Welshman appears unstoppable.
A word too on Aleksandar Mitrovic would be appopriate as the Serbian celebrates his 27th birthday. Silva insisted that Mitrovic would take Fulham’s next penalty after missing from the spot against Stoke City – and he was true to his word. Mitrovic looked much more decisive in dispatching this one into the bottom corner and put a far more convincing gloss on the scoreline as the clock ticked down. Fulham’s fourth goal owed everything to his desire to prove there’s much more to his game than merely poaching goals. He stripped Marc Roberts of possession on the halfway line, sauntered down the left flank and slipped in Jean-Michael Seri with a beautifully disguised reverse ball. When the return pass landed at his feet, you knew what was going to happen. His exclusion from a struggling side last season seems even more perplexing with each week.
Silva’s rotation probably came a few days too late but there were something interesting things to note. On his hundredth Fulham appearance, Joe Bryan gave a masterclass in how to fulfil the role of a modern full back. He was eager to get forward, as ever, but remained responsible, wary of Birmingham’s own attacking threat, at the same time. Tosin Adarabioyo was outstanding at the heart of the visiting defence – heading away countless aerial balls as the Blues took a more direct route to goal, particularly in the first half.
The clearest change came in the shape of Fulham’s midfield. The loss of Josh Onomah to injury, and Fabio Carvalho’s continued absence with a toe complaint, meant Silva would have to select different personnel in the engine room but he went with a slightly different shape to what we have seen before as well. Seri seemed to sit a deeper than in previous outings, with Harrison Reed playing slighly further forward alongside Nathaniel Chalobah, who was outstanding on his Fulham debut. The trio outnumbered Birmingham in the centre of the park and, whilst they certainly didn’t have it all their own way in what was a pretty even contest, they definitely made Fulham tougher to play through. Chalobah and Seri had notable roles in three of Fulham’s goals on a very encouraging night.
The set up of Fulham’s three central midfielders also had a knock on effect for the forward line as well. Wilson and Bobby Decordova-Reid were stationed very wide and pushed forward to join Mitrovic in attack – in an attempt to stretch Birmingham’s back three, which worked wonderfully well. It was a clear plan for this fixture, with Lee Bowyer always keen to push his wing-backs on, and the visitors got great joy down the flanks. This was one of those games where the preparation for the opposition really paid off.
The scoreline may ultimately have flattered Fulham, as Birmingham were punished for defensive lapses whilst Paulo Gazzaniga made a number of second half saves, but this was precisely the response to the Blackpool abberation that Silva would have sought. Bowyer is building a combative and competitive side and I don’t think many teams will score four at St. Andrew’s this season.