Fulham would have travelled to Blackpool in good spirits following the international break after completing the first month of the season unbeaten, with Marco Silva winning the Championship manager of the month award and the Whites sitting at the top of the table. Predictions of a comfortable Cottagers victory were misplaced as the Whites’ air of invincibly evaporated at the seaside, with former Fulham youngster Josh Bowler scoring the only goal of the goal at the start of the second half to give the Tangerines a thoroughly deserved first win of the new campaign.
Fulham set up in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation that Silva has deployed since taking over at Craven Cottage. Domingos Quina was handed a debut after joining from Watford on transfer deadline day, replacing the injured Fabio Carvalho, who proved to be a significant loss. Ivan Cavaleiro came in for Harry Wilson, who was still suffering from the concussion sustained with Wales on international duty. The visitors struggled to get going at all in the game, unable to permeate the Blackpool press, with the tigerish home side putting in 21 tackles in the game – more than they’ve made in any other match so far this season.
Blackpool began in a 4-4-2 and they put their high-flying opponents under the pump from the outset. Neil Critchley’s outfit were relentless in their pressuring, rushing around the white shirts and regularly forcing mistakes high up the pitch. Towards the end, with a deserved lead to hang onto, the hosts set up a lot more defensively with two deep banks of four – almost sitting deeper and challenging Fulham to break them down.
Jean Michael-Seri had one of Fulham’s few half chances in the first half. As the ball was switched out to Decordova-Reid, we saw Antonee Robinson driving forward down the left flank, fixing Blackpool right-back Jordan-Lawrence Gabriel in position and allowing Decordova-Reid the opportunity to drive inside and take on the second Blackpool midfielder who tracked back to try and cover the threat from the former Bristol City forward.
Decordova-Reid beats his man to link up with Mitrovic as Fulham hit a point in the attack where they often find themselves in around the edge of the opponents box. Decordorva-Reid tries to drift in behind the Blackpool back four, but the pass from Mitrovic can’t get through. This is because Blackpool worked hard to stay compact and get numbers behind the ball making it extremely difficult to get any pass in behind them, forcing Fulham to shoot from range on multiple occasions.
When the rebound from Mitrovic through ball falls kindly for Seri on the edge of the box, the Blackpool defence are quick to close him down by throwing bodies in front of the ball. Seri is limited to either shooting from range first time or trying to make a fifty-fifty pass to Cavaleiro, who is well marked by Luke Garbutt. The option for the shot isn’t a bad one due to the pressure from the defence, and the Ivorian midfielder was unlucky as his effort flew fractionally wide.
BLACKPOOL 1-0 FULHAM (BOWLER 49)
Fulham successfully defended a Blackpool free-kick at the start of the second half looked set for a promising counter-attack led by Robinson, Seri and Quina. But the move petered out as sloppy passing surrendered possession to the home side inside the Fulham half. Blackpool could new exploit a vulnerable defence with four white shirts out of position.
There was a distinct lack of Fulham pressure down the Blackpool right. Bowler made good progress down that flank and an overlap from Gabriel dragged Robinson slightly wider to track the run of the full back, opening up a pocket of space between Seri and the American international for the winger to drive into.
A lapse in communication between Robinson and Seri means that by the time Seri realises that he has to stop Bowler’s run, the wide man was already past him and the Ivorian couldn’t make a challenge to cut him off. Tim Ream could have also realised the danger slightly earlier in the attack and come across to help deal with the threat that Bowler posed. The American veteran wasn’t marking anyone and could have stepped into the space putting more pressure onto Bowler making it much more difficult for Bowler to get the shot off.
There are also question marks about Paulo Gazzaniga’s goalkeeping here. It never looks good for a goalkeeper to be beaten at the near post – but this one looked particularly poor.
KEY TACTICAL TAKEAWAYS
The biggest obstacle Fulham failed to overcome was playing through the Blackpool press with the visitors’ midfield proving particularly culpable. Seri and Josh Onomah are extremely talented footballers, but they don’t have the pace and energy that Harrison Reed can inject from the base of midfield. As a combination, they might be too leisurely, which can result in a rather laboured tempo when faced with a high press. On reflection, this felt like a fixture that would have suited Reed, who could have made a real difference in curbing Blackpool’s breaks as well as moving the ball more quickly to stretch the home defence.
Going forward, Fulham sorely missed the creativity of Fabio Carvalho and Harry Wilson. They created far fewer chances than in previous games and never seriously looked like scoring. The pair would have changed the angle of attack and asked more questions of the Blackpool defence. Fulham only had four shots on target, a significant reduction of the nine they managed against Stoke before the international break.
None of this is meant to detract from a brilliant Blackpool performance. Critchley’s side were extremely effective in stopping Fulham from playing and proved clinical in front of goal when Bowler got free down the right flank. This game reiterates the difficulty and competitiveness of the Championship, but as long as both Silva and Fulham can learn the lessons from a frustrating afternoon swiftly, they can be still of confident of a strong season.