Fulham’s fine victory over Swansea City in midweek lifted the Whites back to third in the table and took us to the ten game mark in the Championship, where perceptive pundits believe you can make an assessment about where teams might finish. Marco Silva’s start defies a simple summary really, but I thought it was time to take stock of the up and downs by the River Thames so far.
The first observation is a further straightforward one but it is bears repeating: it is so great to be able to attend games in person again. I was one of the travelling fans at Ashton Gate and loved the Mitrovic show on Wednesday night. Away days are back and that’s wonderful, while there’s nothing quite like being at Craven Cottage under the lights. After the desolation of empty stadiums and watching football from home whilst working from home too, being back in stadiums still gives me a real lift.
If we were writing a report card on Fulham’s first two months, I think it would conclude with that familiar teaching cliché: ‘could do better’. That’s largely because Silva’s side have been maddeningly inconsistent of late. The opening weekend draw with Middlesbrough has encapsulated the frustrating elements of our season so far: comfortably in control of a game but letting three points slip away in the latter stages by not being clinical. We have struggled to break down a low block as the season as gone on and our finishing can leave an awful lot to be desire – the games against Reading and Bristol City demonstrated this clearly.
You still have a sense that Silva hasn’t quite got the balance right in midfield. Much of that might be caused by the absence of Fabio Carvalho, who started the season so sensationally, and we certainly miss a dynamic number ten. Jean-Michael Seri’s redemption has been the big surprise to date and while the Ivorian’s ability makes him a cut above technically at this level, deploying him as the deepest-lying midfielder does seem fraught with danger. He can still lose the man he’s meant to be tracking or let someone drift past him too easily, as happened at Bloomfield Road.
There’s still a big debate raging about who should be in goal, although not with the man that matters. Silva has stuck by Paulo Gazzaniga and, while he has flapped at a few crosses and looked a little shaky when the ball has been played back to him, I feel the Argentine has done a decent job. He pulled off a couple of fine saves at Bristol City and, if the assistant referee had utilised his flag correctly, would have been lauded for a brilliant stop from Chris Martin before Kasey Palmer was able to tuck home the rebound.
Fulham have looked irresistible going forward at times, handing out a couple of drubbings, and when Silva’s side hit top gear it seems like nobody can live with them. The performance at Huddersfield on that very first August away day showed what the Whites can do. Despite being down to ten men late on, where in the past we would have very definitely shut up down, Silva sent on another attacker and Ivan Cavaleiro added two goals to seal a comprehensive victory. Fulham looked just as devastating in the early stages at Millwall, but couldn’t put the game to bed and were left clinging on after Benik Afobe’s bizarre late strike.
There can be no doubting that the last international break severely disrupted Fulham’s rhythm and Carvalho’s toe problem robbed the side of its most exhilarating performance. In the teenager’s absence, Silva has tried a number of different options in the number ten position – but none have seized their opportunity. The proven performer in Tom Cairney remains sidelined with knee problems and the alternatives have been scratchy at best. Domingos Quina is still adapting to his new surroundings and Fulham’s style, which is why it was a surprise to see him start at Bloomfield Road. You can never fault Bobby Decordova-Reid’s effort but he hasn’t flourished behind the striker this term and seems to be struggling in front of goal. Josh Onomah had an excellent start to the season but isn’t a natural 10 himself. Fulham have sorely missed the energy and vision of our gifted academy graduate, so hopefully Carvalho will be available for selection for the local derby with QPR as Silva has hinted at.
The head coach has to take some of the blame for not trusting the depth in his squad ahead of that Blackpool defeat, given that so many key players were coming back late from international duty. Fulham looked understandably lethargic but delivered the perfect response at Birmingham, even if the performance wasn’t as the dominant as the eventual 4-1 scoreline suggested. There might be a mentality thing at play here: when the Whites go ahead early, they are usually able to pick up points but they have yet to come up with an answer after going behind. Against sides like Blackpool and Reading, who are content to sit in and use that low block to stifle Fulham’s creativity, Silva’s charges seem somewhat stumped. If they want to make an immediate return to the top flight, the head coach and his technical staff will need to find a solution – as they will face such an approach with increasingly regularity.
Despite only getting a point at Bristol City, I wasn’t too disheartened with what I saw at Ashton Gate. We battered them and created countless chances to win the game – rather like the reverse to Reading. It would be much more worrying if Fulham were failing to create scoring opportunities, whilst the openings are coming, you always feel the goals will arrive too. I can’t remember the last game I saw Fulham hit the bar three times and confirmation that our luck was truly out came when Palmer’s equaliser was allowed to stand.
There was some criticism of Mitrovic’s failure to grab all three points in Bristol, but Wednesday night was all about the superb Serbian striker. His first goal might have proved the old adage about decisions evening themselves out as he looked offside from Tim Ream’s header, but he took it exceptionally well. His clever movement quickly doubled the lead with a sharp finish and the third goal was a joy to watch. The flowing team move from the back was reminiscent of how Slavisa Jokanovic’s promotion winners would play through their opponents and Mitrovic finished with real authority. That kind of football is what Silva is searching for and if they can produce that level of quality consistently, I’m confident the Whites will remain to top of the table – and perhaps even pull away.
It is important to back up that victory with another three points at Coventry tomorrow lunchtime, although that will be easier said than done. The Sky Blues have been sensational back on home turf this season and Mark Robins will have worked them extra hard in the two days since a surprising 5-0 thumping at Luton. Ending their 100% start at home would be a real statement.