Fulham travelled to Birmingham on Wednesday night with plenty of questions hanging over their start to the season following a surprise defeat at the hands of newly-promoted Blackpool at the weekend. Marco Silva demanded a response from his side and the Whites had the perfect incentive to get their campaign back on track immediately as a win at St. Andrew’s would take them top of the Championship. Blues, though, had made a strong start to the season under Lee Bowyer, sitting just two points behind their opponents at kick off, and their miserly defence had conceded just three league goals.
Silva – perhaps stung by the insipid Fulham display at the seaside – made four changes to the starting eleven for the trip to the Midlands, having entrusted his international players with the task of hitting the ground running at Blackpool. Nathaniel Chalobah was handed a debut in central midfield, with Harrison Reed returning to the starting line up and Jean-Michael Seri, perhaps surprisingly, sitting deepest of a midfield three. Harry Wilson and Bobby Decordova-Reid stayed very wide, hoping to exploit the spaces left by Birmingham’s back three.
When Fulham didn’t have the ball, Reed tucked in next to Seri in more of a 4-2-3-1 – which was similar to how Fulham have lined up for much of the season under Silva. Chalobah, Decordova-Reid and Wilson lead an energetic press higher up the pitch, but the visitors remained largely compact and appeared happy to hit their opponents on the counter-attack.
Birmingham played in a 3-4-3 with the aim of pressing Fulham high up the pitch. Chong appeared responsible for man marking Seri and the early pressure initially resulted in the visitors conceding possession regularly in their own half. The Blues struggled to deal with Fulham’s offensive power though, committing so many men forward to press Fulham high, exposing their back three to the pace and movement of the Whites’ forward line when Silva’s side were able to bypass that press. The hosts tried to take full advantage from long throws, committing numbers into the box. Fulham dealt with this approach effectively on the whole, but it became a different proposition when Troy Deeney was introduced in the second half and a penalty – which Deeney dispatched – came from a long throw.
BIRMINGHAM CITY 0-1 FULHAM (Odoi ’10)
Denis Odoi rose highest to head home Fulham’s first goal of the night unmarked from a move worked on the training ground. He ghosted to the front post unmarked in large part due to Chalobah’s hulking presence. The former Watford midfielder stood his ground in the box blocking the run of Bela who was trying to mark Odoi, allowing the Belgian to find a free pocket of space in the box to head home.
This could have been a planned set play move as we have already seen Fulham score a goal similarly earlier in the season. Mitrovic lost his man this time against Hull, as Tosin blocked the Hull defender allowing the Serbian a free header at the near post.
A penalty from Mitrovic, won by a beautiful bit of skill from Chalobah, gave Fulham further breathing space at half time and – in truth – Silva’s side looked threatening every time they went forward.
BIRMINGHAM 0-3 FULHAM (Wilson ’56)
Birmingham started to commit more numbers forward in the second half but as Fulham turned over possession to start a counter attack, over half the Birmingham team were beyond the ball providing Fulham with a great opportunity to attack. Because of this lack of numbers back, the Birmingham centre-back steps forward to press Reed who finds himself in acres of space. This creates the space in behind for Harry Wilson to advance into leaving himself with over half the pitch on the right to himself.
Reed does well in releasing the ball to Chalobah, creating a much better angle for a pass to get through to Wilson. Jérémie Bela has to work harder to get back and cover for his left centre back and make it harder for Wilson to get behind.
Harry Wilson then has the pace to run onto the ball and get past the last Birmingham defender putting him through with a simple one on one that he makes no mistake with arguably putting the game to bed and Fulham 3-0 to the good.
BIRMINGHAM 0-3 FULHAM (Mitrovic 83)
With just under ten minutes to go in the game, Fulham were still putting Birmingham under pressure forcing them to pass back from midfield to defence. Marc Roberts then had limited options with all passing opportunities being tightly marked by a Fulham player. With Mitrovic closing him down, this forced the error as the centre-half attempted to turn out of trouble and the Serbian stripped him of possession quite easily.
Mitrovic carries the ball to the edge of the box and does well to hold the defender while waiting for support to arrive. By coming slightly inside, space is created down the wing for Jean-Michael Seri to utilise on the overlap getting in behind Birmingham again.
The Birmingham defence is then caught ball watching and are all drawn to Seri. This allows Mitrovic to move into the box unmarked in a huge pocket of space in the box allowing a simple pass from Seri and a comfortable first time finish for Mitrovic.