It wasn’t as pretty as we’ve come to expect but Marco Silva got what he wanted. The Portuguese manager didn’t realise he would be taking charge of his hundredth game in charge of Fulham this weekend but after briefly entertaining the highs he’s overseen since replacing Scott Parker after the Whites’ meek capitulation to the drop during Friday’s press conference, he insisted the ‘nice number’ would mean nothing without three points.
Silva got the victory he craved to help down the page after a tricky August for everyone connected with the Whites. Fulham will feel the loss of Aleksandar Mitrovic for a while yet – we’ll gloss over the Serbian’s laughable assertion that his Saudi paymasters are on a par with Real Madrid – and it seemed that the Cottagers might have to contend with Joao Palhinha’s exit on transfer deadline day. But the collapse of our tenacious tackler’s move to Bayern Munich remarkably led to the ex-Sporting schemer signing a new deal alongside his partner in the engine room, Harrison Reed, and instantaneously, the mood around Craven Cottage lifted.
Beating Luton on an emotional day when the Fulham faithful paid tribute to Mohamed Al-Fayed was never going to be as straightforward as some had suggested. Rob Edwards’ side were fired up by some inane comments from Garth Crooks, which could easily have served as the Hatters’ pre-match pep talk. The visitors’ best performance of the season saw them serenely soak up all of Fulham’s possession and create the better chances for good measure too. Carlton Morris snatched at an early volley, Jacob Brown should have buried a free header and Reed was fortunate not to give away a penalty when he took out Morris at a set play.
Luton continued in much the same vein in the second half, with Brown creating a glorious chance for Amari Bell, whilst keeping a feeble Fulham front line at bay with ease. Last season’s side had goals everywhere – even discounting Mitrovic, you always felt the likes of Andreas Pereira, Willian, Harry Wilson or even Reed and Palhinha could pop up with something special. By contrast, yesterday afternoon, Raul Jimenez was easily nullified, Pereira appeared peripheral, whilst Wilson ran into orange shirts having ventured off the right flank in search of the ball. It’s no surprise that Fulham were far from fluent so soon after an international break – but the reshaping of Silva’s side means being miserly at the back is now vital.
Fortunately, the Whites have a bit more depth in defence than they did at the start of last season. Issa Diop played more passes than any other Premier League defender this term – and the entire Luton side (although that includes the one he launched back to an unsuspecting Bernd Leno in the second half, whilst Tim Ream’s reading of the game and dependable distribution make him ideally suited to playing out from the back. The revelation was Timothy Castagne, thrown in at left back after Antonee Robinson returned from the States with a knock, who looked outstanding on his home debut.
Clean sheets can only get you so far – and it was pleasing to see Silva shuffle his pack swifter than early in the season when games were drifting. The Fulham boss believes Alex Iwobi can be an asset and the Nigerian definitely added a new dimension to the home midfield after coming on, whilst the lesser-spotted Carlos Vinicius needed only three minutes to remind Silva just how deadly he can be. One of the mysteries of the first month of the season is why a man who deputised so well for Mitrovic last term hasn’t been seen since, but Vinicius gobbled up the first chance that came his way.
I don’t buy for one second that Silva wasn’t interested in replacing Fulham’s most potent source of goals during the summer transfer window and I’m not about to write Raul off. After all, the very people who were venturing the opinion that Vinicius was Vanarama standard last season are now saying he should lead the line in the top flight. Vinicius does now have four goals and an assist in his last six league outings so he deserves more game time, but Jimenez shouldn’t be lampooned after six games. It is no shock that football fans are fickle, but Fulham will need to fashion a few more chances and play at a higher tempo whoever plays centre forward.
The biggest positive was that what might have been another frustrating afternoon actually delivered a gritty win. You don’t get awarded Premier League points for style – as we discovered under Slavisa Jokanovic. Fulham will have to be more streetwise to succeed in their second season. The peerless Palhinha will help in that regard but the Whites have already demonstrated that they can triumph in adversity. Silva’s fiftieth win makes him the second most successful Fulham boss in percentage terms behind Kevin Keegan (before England enticed him into the unforgiving world of international management) and I’m confident there’s even more excitement ahead.