By the end, it was a massacre. Arsenal accelerated to their ninth straight league win and there seemed to be an ocean between the Gunners at Fulham by the time that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rolled in a fifth at the Putney End seconds into stoppage time. The sight of Ryan Sessegnon, disconsolately on his knees after the final whistle in the centre circle, showed just how much this defeat hurt.
It was yet another reminder of how defensive vulnerabilities can be brutally exposed in the top flight. Fulham had began feistily, with plenty of spirit and tempo, penning Unai Emery’s side deep in their own half during an opening twenty minutes that saw Slavisa Jokanovic’s side dominate possession and create a couple of clear chances. They even had the momentum going in at half-time following Andre Schurrle’s sumptuous finish to a flowing move and were arguably in the game until Jokanovic opted to replace Tim Ream with Aboubakar Kamara. Had the French forward directed a header on goal with his first touch instead of it drifting harmlessly wide, who knows what the outcome might have been?
Instead, Arsenal’s formidable football, explosive pace in the forward areas and the sort of supreme confidence that comes with winning nine league games in a row took hold. Alexandre Lacazette had underlined his devastating ability in front of goal with two wondrous finishes before a sweeping move that began in the Arsenal right back position after Schurrle’s untimely slip ended a promising Fulham attack, led to an impudent flick from Aaron Ramsey completing a contender for goal of the season. The game might have been effectively out of Fulham’s reach from that moment on, but Jokanovic would not have been enamoured with the way his charges wilted after that. The Whites appeared to have run horribly out of gas in the final twenty minutes, with Aubameyang slotting home clinically from close range before adding that late fifth. Fulham have a reputation for being welcoming hosts, but this was unforgivable generosity.
Jokanovic’s solution to a horribly shaky defence was to deploy three centre backs and give Sessegnon and Christie the license to roam forward from wing-back. The teenage Sessegnon did it effectively, arguably bettering Hector Bellerin in the first 45 minutes, but Christie’s limitations at this level were horribly exposed during a chastening afternoon. With Timothy Fosu-Mensah’s return from a serious shoulder injury probably more than a month away, right back appears to become another problem position. Most of the problems came down the Arsenal left in the first half and, with Denis Odoi frequently dragged out of position to cover, it was inevitable that the Gunners would eventually fashion a goalscoring chance. Maxime Le Marchand had already produced two last-ditch interventions before Lacazette took the first opening that came his way clinically, spinning inside the box and firing a low shot beyond Marcus Bettinelli, to make light of Fuham’s encouraging start, which saw Bernt Leno produce an excellent save from Luciano Vietto’s deflected shot and Aleksandar Mitrovic have a strike blocked behind.
As it turned out, Fulham’s equaliser just before the break only delayed a deflating second half collapse, but at the time it felt significant. Vietto gleefully seized on a poor Arsenal pass, galloped into space just outside the box and measured a lovely ball through for Schurrle. There was a still a lot for the German to do, but he brilliantly lifted a clever finish over Leto and the home side were level. It was the least they deserved for the spirit and resolve demonstrated in shaking off going behind once again, but Jokanovic will be alarmed at how devastatingly his side fell from that high-octane start for the second week running. The Whites had no answer to Everton stepping up a gear at Goodison Park last Saturday – and you never really felt they were likely to mount a comeback once Lacazette lashed home from distance after Danny Welbeck had flicked on a hopeful long ball from the impressive Lucas Torreira.
Ramsey’s first touch was an artful back flick from close range that left Marcus Bettinelli with no chance and capped a mesmerising length of the field move that hinted at the sort of football Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles put together in their sleep. You can feel the belief drain away from Fulham’s shell-shocked players – and Jokanovic now has a real job on his hands. The Serbian head coach, no closer to knowing his best eleven and with injuries sidelining key performers, has to lift his team ahead of their return to domestic action following the international break, which includes three possibly pivotal fixtures against Cardiff City, Bournemouth and Huddersfield Town. Aside from fashioning a functioning back line, the Fulham boss needs to add more bite to the midfield, especially ahead of that trip to south Wales. The confidence of last May already looks a thing of the past.
FULHAM (3-4-3): Bettinelli; Odoi, Ream (Kamara 54), Le Marchand; Christie, R, Sessegnon, Zambo Anguissa (McDonald 62), Seri; Vietto (Johansen 83), Schürrle, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rico, Mawson, S. Sessegnon.
BOOKED: Vietto, Schürrle.
GOAL: Schürrle (44).
ARSENAL (4-4-2): Leno; Bellerín, Monreal, Mustafi, Holding; Mkhitaryan, Torreira, Xhaka, Iwobi (Ramsey 67); Welbeck (Aubameyang 62), Lacazette (Guendouzi 80). Subs (not used): Martínez, Sokratis, Lichtsteiner, Kolasinac.
GOALS: Lacazette (29, 49); Ramsey (67); Aubameyang (79, 90+1).
REFEREE: Paul Tierney (Lancashire).
I only met Stuart Gray twice. One was in the Madjeski Stadium car park, when in a jovial mood, we celebrated the coolness of Lucas Piazon’s measured finish that had rescued a point for Fulham’s ten men at Reading at the start of last season. The other time was at Motspur Park where he spoke briefly about how he’d managed to make watching the Whites defend set plays a much less stressful experience. He was passionate, open to discussion with the fans and clearly a deep thinker about the game, who was enjoying his time at the club.
It came as something of a surprise therefore, considering the remarkable upturn in fortunes of Fulham during the two and a half years that Gray spent at the club, when he left during the summer. While all the focus was on the flowing football and attacking intent that had helped the Whites became something of an irresistible force in the Championship, Gray quietly got on with the job of turning a defence that had been shambolic into a miserly unit that complimented the way Jokanovic wanted his side to play.
It involved hard graft on the training ground, an emphasis on fitness and decision-making as well as communication across the back line. Kevin McDonald’s arrival as a holding midfielder – playing a deeper role than he had at any point in his career – made a decisive difference, both as an organiser and as an outlet to receive the ball of the back four. McDonald’s positioning was crucial, as was the recovery speed of the likes of Ryan Fredericks, Scott Malone and even Matt Targett, when the Southampton left back fitted so seamlessly into the back four after signing on loan last January.
The training ground drills weren’t quite as repetitive as the ones that Roy Hodgson employed to drag his embattled side away from the Premier League drop zone, but practice, partnerships and positioning were a hallmark of the hard graft at Motspur Park. Gray’s wealth of managerial and coaching experience throughout the Football League proved invaluable to a coaching staff that had largely cut their teeth on the continent, aside from Jokanovic’s canter to promotion from the Championship with Watford. The remarkable renaissance of Tim Ream and the emergence of Denis Odoi as a ball-playing centre half owed much to the first team senior coach’s tutelage and patient cajoling.
There was a consistency to the Fulham back line that remained even once Odoi displaced the successful 2016/2017 partnership of Ream and Tomas Kalas. The Whites were comfortable holding a higher line than you might have expected given the centre halves’ lack of pace – and the extraordinary unbeaten run that almost carried them to automatic promotion was built not just on possession football but defensive diligence. The fact that the jittery, panic-stricken defending of corners and free kicks gradually became a thing of the past certain helped too.
Now, linking Fulham’s alarmingly leaky defence to Gray’s departure might be a bit of a stretch. His meticulous organisation and attention to detail could well be sorely missed, but Jokanovic has had other factors to deal with. Even setting aside the obvious step in class when it comes to the opposition in the Premier League, Fulham have had to integrate a whole host of new players and seen several signings beset by injuries. The early-season goalkeeping situation couldn’t have helped and the fact that Jokanovic has fielded six different back fours means the consistency that the best teams count upon hasn’t been obtainable.
It’s just a hunch, provoked by Fulham’s shambolic second half collapse at Goodison Park, but Gray’s surprising summer departure might have left a bigger hole than Jokanovic could have initially appreciated. Good defences make strong teams – and Fulham’s gung-ho style leaves little margin for error at the highest level.
If you’d read the script beforehand, then this Fulham defeat might almost have appeared made to order. The Whites have never won in the league at Goodison Park – losing their last 23 league games at Everton in a row – and the Londoners haven’t kept a top flight clean sheet in any of their last 22 away games, a miserable stat this is a Premier League record. It was all so depressingly predictable, but for at least 45 minutes Slavisa Jokanovic’s hinted at being able to rewrite the record books.
It is clear that the Serbian’s side remain very much a work in progress at this level. If the opening day defeat at the hands of Crystal Palace proved a lesson in the need to take your chances in the top flight, then this could have doubled as a timely refresher. Fulham produced a composed and patient display of possession football in a first half they gradually began to control, but had nothing to show for their endeavour having squandered the two best chances. A player of Andre Schurrle’s quality should have done better than to laconically sidefoot over the bar from the edge of the box after Ryan Sessegnon and Joe Bryan had unlocked the Everton defence down the left, before the teenage left winger rattled the frame of the goal from closer range having latched onto Jean-Michael Seri’s gloriously weighted through pass.
Jokanovic admitted his side had paid ‘an expensive price’ for failing to hit the target – the visitors didn’t manage to test Jordan Pickford at all – but their inability to match Everton’s energetic start after the half-time break will have been particularly disconcerting. They failed to heed the warning when Gylfi Siggurdson smacked the crossbar with a spot-kick, awarded after Dominic Calvert-Lewin took a tumble after a challenge from Denis Odoi, and eventually capitulated rather meekly as Seri and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa faded from their starring first half roles.
Sigurdsson stroked home a gorgeous first goal from the edge of the box, arriving to curl a low effort into the bottom corner after Odoi had half-cleared Jonjoe Kenny’s cross, although Icelandic international was only belatedly pressed by Luciano Vietto. The home side remained on the offensive – galvanised by taking a lead that appeared likely to restore order to this fixture – but it was Vietto’s failure to profit from a swift Fulham break that left you with the feeling it just wasn’t going to be their day. The Argentinian galloped onto a clever reverse ball from Schurrle, but his heavy touch as he bore down on goal allowed Pickford to pluck the ball from his toes. The England goalkeeper celebrated with a clenched first – and Fulham never truly threatened again.
Instead, Everton made their winning margin much more comfortable. Cenk Tosun headed home his first Everton goal since April from close range after drifting away from Odoi to nod home Theo Walcott’s lofted cross to double the Toffees’ lead. With time ticking down, substitute Bernard made an immediate impact – dribbling into the box down the left flank, and pulling the ball break for Sigurdsson, left all alone on the edge of box again, to pick his spot in the last minute of normal time. Everton’s first win since August was just the tonic for Marco Silva, whose delight on the touchline by the end stood in sharp contrast to frustration when Fulham had began so promisingly.
By the end, the visitors had been reduced to ten men as Joe Bryan headed straight down the tunnel having tweaked his hamstring after Jokanovic had already made his three substitutions. The first of those had seen Timothy Fosu-Mensah stretched off with a serious shoulder injury – and further defensive reorganisation, a consistent part of Fulham’s season so far, will be required before the Whites’ face Arsenal at Craven Cottage on Saturday. This defeat might count as a surprise, but it was particularly deflating.
EVERTON (4-2-3-1): Pickford; Kenny, Digne, Keane, Zouma; Gueve, Davies; Richarlison (Bernard 88), Walcott, G. Sigurdsson (Schneiderlin 90+1); Calvert-Lewin (Tosun 55). Subs (not used): Stekelenburg, Holgate, Baines, Lookman.
GOALS: G. Sigurdsson (56, 89), Tosun (66).
FULHAM (4-5-1): Bettinelli; Fosu-Mensah (Christie 8), Bryan, Odoi, Ream; Anguissa, Seri (Ayite 81), Vietto (Cairney 64), R. Sessegnon, Schurrle; Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Rico, Le Marchand, McDonald, Johansen.
BOOKED: Fosu-Mensah, Christie, Odoi, Mitrovic.
REFEREE: Roger East (Wiltshire).
Slavisa Jokanovic was pleased with what he described as ‘a positive night’ as Fulham reached the fourth round of the League Cup after recording a 3-1 win at Millwall.
The Fulham head coach told his post-match press conference that he was encouraged by the way his side shrugged off the defensive setbacks against Watford at the weekend and how a number of players took their opportunity to demonstrate their talent against combative Championship opposition. He was also pleased by the way in which a new-look Fulham side adapted to a 3-4-3 formation.
Today we played well. In the last game against Watford, we had a defensive problem in the first half and in the second half we fixed it. I always try to find a solution. We tried to prepare well for this game, and in the end the team interpreted the situation both offensively and defensively. It’s something different, but sometimes you need to change things. This is one way to play football, so why not try it?
Jokanovic reserved special praise for American midfielder, Luca de la Torre, who scored his first goal for the club, and left back Joe Bryan, who rifled home the opener having been left out of recent starting elevens.
Luca’s a really great lad and he played well – two assists and one goal. He’s worked a long time with me. I haven’t had space to give him many chances, but he has never stopped pushing forward, has shown personality and professionalism in training. He’s never given up and he’s never surrendered. I can’t promise anything, but he’s showed many positives. He enjoyed scoring his first goal for the team, as did Joe Bryan, who played well too. It has been a positive night for us.
We’ll try and find a solution, and think how we can use different players, in different moments, or different formations. The shape today worked well enough and we are open to variation. We’ll check whether we can play with this shape in the future.
He was inevitability asked about the game’s most eye-catching debutante, fifteen year-old Harvey Elliott, who enjoyed his first ten minutes of senior football as a late substitute.
Harvey’s trained with us a few times. He’s definitely a talented kid, whose shown some kind of quality and we believe this was an opportunity how we performs at a senior level. He moved the ball with quality and speed. I didn’t want to put him in trouble. When the game started to look comfortable, I gave him a chance. In the end, it was a great opportunity for him. The future’s bright, but he must go back to school tomorrow!
Slavisa Jokanovic has warned his Fulham side that they won’t be able to survive in the Premier League if they continue to make the kind of sloppy starts that have gifted goals to the opposition over the past two weeks.
Fulham conceded a second-minute opener to Leroy Sane at Manchester City last weekend and a horrible defensive mix-up gave Andre Gray the opportunity to put high-flying Watford in front at Craven Cottage this afternoon. Jokanovic was heavily critical of his side’s disorganised start in his post-match press conference and is demanding an immediate improvement.
We started really sloppy and soft, and gave them so much space to do damage. We encouraged ourselves and in the second half we showed we can move the football, showed attitude and showed character. In the end, we must be satisfied with a point today, and push forward, be brave and improve.
There’s a huge gap for improvement. We must be available to work hard and improve. To start the game the way we started today, or how we started against City, it’s not easy to survive this situation. We must be focused, concentrate – this is the Premier League, the most competitive league in the world. These mistakes and sloppy starts can make it complicated to fix. We must be available to work. We must be available to step up. I need my players to be brave and confident.
The Fulham head coach admitted he still hasn’t settled on his best side but is confident that his summer signings are beginning to gel.
We must be satisfied with one point, but I’m not completely satisfied with our 90 minutes. The satisfaction comes from the second-half. There’s space for improvement, as the gap is huge. It’s my sixth game with 12 new players. Today’s situation is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today. We are in some kind of process and the players are gelling.
Jokanovic was full of praise for centre forward Aleksandar Mitrovic, who grabbed Fulham’s equaliser, and could have pinched all three points in the closing stages.
He’s great, he played well. It wasn’t easy for him, fighting against two Watford centre-backs – [but] he’s strong. He didn’t find the space for many chances, but in the end he had two chances and scored one and hit the crossbar. He did his job and we’re satisfied with his level. He’s a brave man and I know he’s never really satisfied.