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Fight won’t save Fulham, we need reinforcements

In years past, Fulham conceding the goals in the manner they did so against Leeds would’ve led to a gutless acceptance of loss and it’s credit to Scott Parker that his squad show grit and character to fight back into the game, even if ultimately fruitless and a disappointing final 10 minutes saw Fulham struggle to retain possession and get into the Leeds final third rather than the push for the equaliser typical of these endings.

Scott Parker’s side has heart, it has fight but it ultimately lacks quality in vital positions to be positive about safety. The Premier League transfer window has about three weeks left to deal with the rest of the world with a Premier League and EFL only window remaining open from the 5th October to the 16th. We didn’t need two Premier League games to know that we needed help in the middle of the back four but Michael Hector’s early performances may lead to thoughts of whether actually need two? It’s absolutely imperative that the majority of the remaining transfer budget is spent on improving the quality in central defence. Whether that’s tempting someone like Chris Smalling to return to the club or attracting Bayer Leverkusen’s Jonathan Tah (both rumoured this summer), I don’t mind, but sooner rather than later would be beneficial before a hole is dug that we simply can not overcome.

It’s easy to be pessimistic after two games, no points to show for it and seven goals conceded but I think there are some positives. Kenny Tete looks a terrific player and will make it hard for Ola Aina to get into the team at right back, a second gorgeous delivery to assist Aleksandar Mitrovic in as many games as well as a solid defensive showing where Jack Harrison was anonymous is promising. At the other full back position, Joe Bryan might be playing his best football since starting at the club despite that moment of madness in giving away the penalty so soon after the equaliser but his alternate, Antonee Robinson is another promising player with the athleticism and play style to shine at the top.

In midfield, Harrison Reed is looking less dominant as a defensive force but is still doing fine. It’s Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa who provides the star power in midfield with his ball recovery, progressive dribbling and distribution that shone at Elland Road and may have been a fairly unanimous man of the match decision if the club was still doing the fan vote. With Mario Lemina in rotation for one of those two roles, the big hole is currently the most advanced as Josh Onomah has been a bit slow to Premier League football and yet to do anything of note and question marks are there around Tom Cairney’s athletic qualities to be the same creative force at the top, especially when quite so one footed.

The three in behind Aleksandar Mitrovic could do with work in general. It wasn’t until Neeskens Kebano’s reintroduction after lockdown did we get anything of note from the flanks in the Championship and he’s already found himself back on the bench. Getting some speed for the counter and quality in the final third is imperative in games where Fulham may not get so much of the ball and need to make the most of the counter attack game.

Scott Parker spoke post game about it not necessarily being a training thing, the desire to defend has to come from inside, the red alert has to come on for situations like set pieces and I don’t think he’s wrong. Bringing in superior quality and a champion mentality would help – Fulham’s most senior players in age and experience are Tim Ream and Kevin McDonald, whilst both will go down in Fulham folklore, they are ultimately Championship players. It’s time for Fulham to have that figure or two that have been there, done it, got the t-shirt and all those other cliches. It’s happened throughout football history how one player with high standards and high quality benefits the rest of the changing room, the first coming to mind is Dennis Bergkamp at Arsenal, it’s time for Fulham to find that presence and we go again. But until we improve the middle of defence and the three in behind Aleksandar Mitrovic, it’s going to be a long, long season, no matter how hard we fight.

Ipswich 0-1 Fulham: Player ratings

Frankie Taylor runs the rule over the man in white at Portman Road tonight …

Alphonse Areola – 6.
Distribution was excellent as you’d expect from a goalkeeper who was once the number one at PSG and fresh off a spell at Real Madrid. Didn’t have a save to make until the very end when he made a routine stop from Gwion Edwards.

Kenny Tete – 8.
The Dutch debutant put in one of the better crosses we’ll see this season, a beautifully weighted ball perfect for Aleksandar Mitrovic to power home for the opener. A willing support act from right back popping up in attacking areas. Floated in another beauty in the second for Aleksandar Mitrovic, whose header was saved. Created more chances than any other player. Good 80 minutes before coming off for Joe Bryan.

Denis Odoi – 6.
Typical Denis performance, dependable filling in on the right hand side of the central defence partnership. Distribution wasn’t as good as his centre back partner but he’ll be happy with another decent performance in white. Always good in the air.

Maxime Le Marchand – 7.
It’s easy to forget that the left footed Frenchman has Champions League and Europa League experience to his name from his time at Nice but on nights like tonight his ability on the ball shines through. Of course, he didn’t have much to defend but he’s a delightful player with the ball at his feet.

Antonee Robinson – 7.
Robinson was keen to get forward, eager to intercept and carry the ball up the pitch as advertised. Mirrored Tete nicely with more of an athletic approach to full back whilst Tete was more technical and measured, he’ll be satisfied with his performance today. Fizzed in a couple of really nice balls and showed how he may compete with ‘play off final hero’ Joe Bryan. By the full time whistle, he saw the ball more than anyone else.

Mario Lemina – 6.
Solid debut. Touched the ball more than any other player at the base of midfield up to his subbing around the hour mark. Happier being the deeper of the two at the base of midfield. Decent showing before being subbed for TC.

Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa – 6.
Still getting his match sharpness back but his quality stands out with his ability to regain possession and be progressive taking on players in midfield. Nearly volleyed home a beauty from a corner. Subbed for Harrison Reed after 70 minutes.

Anthony Knockaert – 6.
Bright but unable to affect the scoresheet sums up his career thus far in a Fulham shirt. I admire his industrious nature but four shots with none on target and created 3 chances, none of which were converted.

Bobby Decordova-Reid – 5.
Considering the League One opposition, you’d have hoped Bobby would have an opportunity to really impress but sadly it wasn’t quite the case. Buzzed about like he usually does but had the same amount of tackles as he had shots (2) in a game where we had over 65% possession.

Neeskens Kebano – 6.
Had a similar sort of performance to Bobby Decordova-Reid but when you’re on the flank, you expect periods of being out of the game and that’s the only real reason he has a 6 rather than a 5. Went close with a free kick (shock) but the game passed him by a tad.

Aleksandar Mitrovic – 7.
Physically dominant against defenders of this level. I think most Premier League defenders would call him their strongest opponent but it’s much more noticeable when he’s holding off two or three of these poor guys. Good header for the winner – 50 up.

Subs:

Tom Cairney – 6.
Kept the ball ticking over. More minutes in the legs.

Harrison Reed – 6.
Ctrl + C (Tom Cairney) and Ctrl + V. Helped see the game out and got the ball continuing to move.

Joe Bryan – N/A.
Not much you can really do in 10 minutes as a sub in a game that Fulham were dominating but ultimately seeing out.

46 Games Gone, 3 To Go?

Scott Parker was regularly raised in conversation over the last week, not just because of Fulham’s participation in the craziest Championship final day finish in a while and his side’s forthcoming play-off push but also because Jordan Henderson’s winning of the Football Writers’s Footballer of the Year drew comparisons to when the Fulham manager did got the award as part of a relegated West Ham team. Weird.

Anyway, Parker’s first full managerial campaign came to a conclusion at Wigan last Wednesday. His Fulham side might have gone off the rails after losing the first two matches after lockdown – so damaging were the defeats to Brentford and Leeds United – but they recovered, showing some serious character to stitch together a seven-match unbeaten run. Fulham might have been fortunate at times, having drawn on the individual star quality in their squad to snatch narrow wins, and they might also rue moments over the course of the season. Not being able to beat Charlton, those two defeats by Barnsley and a 3-0 home defeat by Hull, who admittedly had Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki at their disposal then. Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing and ‘unsuccessful’ seasons are crammed full of what ifs.

Promisingly, over 46 games, Fulham could not be beaten when scoring the first goal but on the flip side, only QPR could be beaten (albeit twice this season) when scoring first. The old saying is football is a results based business, though most football supporters want both results and sexy football. ‘Parkerball’ has struggled to deliver a complete 90-minute display, with some of the better performances with Middlesbrough, Huddersfield and Sheffield Wednesday at home being limited to first half glimmers of what could be possible. Of course we all remember the record breaking 4-0 home win against Millwall who were at the time managed by Neil Harris, now of Cardiff who we’ll meet on Monday and Thursday night (we’d all love repeats of that performance I’m sure).

One of the major disappointments this season has been Fulham’s ineffectiveness in the final third despite the serious investment in attacking options. Parker’s side finished seveth in the division for goals scored (below sides like QPR, Blackburn and our playoff rivals Cardiff City). Some would say our total shots being 5th in the division is below-par (around 130 shots fewer than Leeds) and, even more alarmingly, our shots from inside the penalty area drops us down to eleventh in the league. At no point this season have we seen the Anthony Knockaert who was named Championship Player of the Year in Brighton’s promotion campaign and, since the turn of the year, Ivan Cavaleiro has provided just two goals and a sole assist. If not for Aleksandar Mitrovic’s ability to score match winning goals and Michael Hector’s January arrival helping to bring a bit of solidity at the back, you wonder just how durable Fulham’s promotion push might have been.

Yet, despite all of the low points, there’s a chance that Scott Parker leads Fulham back to the Premier League at the first time of asking. I must say, as the year has progressed, I’ve gotten flashbacks to 2017/18. Whilst a stylish, attacking and swaggering side has been on electric form with goals potentially coming from anywhere, there’s been a former Premier League club with a deep squad full of known players never really out of the play-offs but never really pushing for automatics. Of course we know one was Fulham and the other Aston Villa, but this year it appears we take the role of Aston Villa whilst Brentford’s eye catching side are drawing comparisons to Slavisa Jokanovic’s Fulham team.

Without looking beyond Cardiff, Fulham will absolutely be expecting to walk at Wembley on the evening of August 4th but the lottery of the play-offs is unpredictable and honestly my fingernails may not exist watching on TV. If Parker achieves promotion for Fulham then no one will really care about the manner in which he did so, but another campaign in the Championship will raise many questions not just of Parker but perhaps more worryingly the futures of some of Fulham’s top end players.

Neil Harris’ Cardiff side will be a tough test but Fulham will be hopeful having recorded a comfortable victory at Craven Cottage only a couple of weeks ago. And whilst the final is the richest game of football, you’ve got to get to the dance with a couple of ISA’s first.

Fulham come to life at the last

I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the only one in a foul mood had Saturday’s dreary date with Birmingham City ended goalless. Such a stalemate would have added to the impression that Scott Parker’s side are running of ideas as we enter the home straight. Funny how one moment changes things. A win is wonderful no matter how it arrives but there’s something even sweeter about victories earned with virtually the last kick.

But, once again, Fulham were far from impressive. Birmingham should really have scored at least once in the first half thanks to a comical cavalcade of defensive errors as Michael Hector’s less than impressive restart continues. It wasn’t even as if we rode our luck. Dominant in possession, Fulham’s toothless football in the final third left Lee Camp scandalously underemployed for long periods. It took until the 65th minute for home side to register a shot on target – and by then Birmingham were already happy to settle for a point.

Pep Clotet’s side gradually relinquished any attacking ambition. He withdrew the talented teenager Jude Bellingham, who could have had a hat trick in the first half, on the hour for the more defensively minded Maikel Kieftenbeld and replaced winger Jeremie Bela with Wes Harding, a right back. Even if the arrival of Lukas Jutkiewicz, a regular scourge of the Whites, sent a shiver down Fulham spines, the sight of the visitors retreating into a low defensive block, trying to shore things up with Harlee Dean coming on as a late substitute and switching to five at the park, signalled their true intentions.

It was crying out for a killer Tom Cairney pass but even though Fulham upped the ante as time ticked away, it would be a stretch to say anyone saw Josh Onomah’s late, late winner coming. Five minutes into stoppage, the sharpest move of the match finally prized open Birmingham’s defence. Bobby Decordova-Reid showed a sense of adventure, skipping away from two defenders on the right and feeding Harrison Reid’s late run. The Southampton loanee spotted the run of his fellow midfielder rather than going for goal himself and Onomah swept home smartly. Camp, who had produced a superb double save to deny Joe Bryan and Decordova-Reid minutes earlier, had no chance.

There were some subtle alterations to Parker’s tactics, even if the overwhelming feeling was that possession for possession’s sake got us nowhere. Tom Cairney was often Fulham’s widest left midfielder as Ivan Cavaleiro occupied more of a wide striker role. Harry Arter was frequently the furthest man forward, with Decordova-Reid appearing to take the idea of a false nine literally. This did cause issues in connecting defence and attack, which led to Denis Odoi’s first half booking, when neither Reed or any of the back four had a passing option in sight with twenty yards between the ball carrier and another white shirt.

However, it was somewhat refreshing to see some positional flexibility to a Fulham side that has been quite predictable. The holder will hold, TC will be centre left and the opposite central midfielder will be the same. The wingers will come inside in possession and the full backs overlap. It was quite apt that the winner came courtesy of some actual movement, Bobby floated right to collect the ball drawing Birmingham players out of position, Harrison Reed saw the space and moved into it whilst Josh Onomah looked like prime Frank Lampard sweeping home.

Parker should incorporate the dynamism of forward runners into his patterns of play when Aleksandar Mitrovic returns from suspension. Our talisman is far more formidable when the angles of attack are multiplied and he has company in the penalty area. Rather than pumping aimless crosses in his direction, let’s get midfielders joining him in the box – there’s untapped scoring potential in our side – and, who knows, a low ball on floor might do the trick as well from time to time.

I’ve moaned a lot recently, and nobody can say we played well on Saturday, with our penchant for possession cancelled out by Birmingham’s increasing willingness to accept a point as they looked to secure safety. But there were some encouraging signs with Ivan Cavaleiro making more in behind his full back and, even if the final ball didn’t always come off, the variety will ask questions of the opposition defence as opposed to everything being ahead of them.

Back-to-back wins should help boost the confidence around the Cottage as Fulham head into five games against some of the Championship’s in-form sides. Tuesday’s trip to Nottingham Forest, who stymied us successfully back in August, will tell us a lot about whether Fulham have recovered from the hammer blows of those defeats by Brentford and Leeds. Another victory and a play-off place should be secured.

Christie blockbuster earns Parker a bit of breathing space

Fulham have been here before. Let’s flashback to last December where Scott Parker’s side started the month with defeats by Bristol City, Preston North End and Brentford, sparking the first questions about the rookie manager’s tenure at Craven Cottage. Along came a crunch clash with high-flying Leeds United, where a rather generously awarded Aleksandar Mitrovic penalty and a Josh Onomah thunder-bastard stole all three points and sparked a run of just two defeats in fourteen league matches leading up to lockdown.

Suddenly, football is back and everything seems a bit different. That unbeaten run is certainly a thing of the past. As if you need reminding, but Fulham’s own restart has been woeful. Damaging defeats by Brentford and Leeds left their already tenuous automatic promotion hopes virtually destroyed. It felt like a local derby against QPR would prove pivotal for Parker – a defeat might not have been terminal, but the questions following three successive slip-ups would have followed him all the way to the end of the season and perhaps beyond.

Last night was never going to one for the purists and nobody was expecting the fluent football to return in such a high pressure game. But it was a scrappy, error-strewn affair, and Fulham prevailed thanks to strikes out of nowhere from Harry Arter and Cyrus Christie. The three points shouldn’t paper over the alarming cracks in this Fulham side at such a critical juncture in the season. QPR created the far clearer chances with Jordan Hugill forcing Marek Rodak into a great save, Luke Amos firing a sitter over and Ryan Manning crashing a late header against the bar. Against far poorer opposition than Leeds and Brentford, Fulham relied on pop shots and a little bit of luck to grind through to claim all three points – and they were hanging on for dear life by the end.

To quote Roy Keane, “When you win a Premier League medal Jamie you get one medal you don’t turn it over and it says how many points you got.” And whilst the performances don’t matter when you look back on seasons, I do think it’s important to question how you’ve managed it, even when you win. Such an analysis isn’t negative, it is just realistic. All coaches will do it in the aftermath of a victory.

So in the spirit of examining where things stand currently, it is worth considering the context of that result. QPR are poor side and whilst I like Ebere Eze as a talent and Mark Warburton as a coach, I do think they have a below-average squad – I think Eze starts for us, but I’d struggle to name another QPR player that would get on our bench. As disrespectful as that reads, I think it’s important to note when you consider we won thanks to moments of magic (as we have done multiple times this season) and on another day, QPR would have scored two or three before half-time.

The final ten to fifteen 15 minutes in particular were hilarious. So desperate were Fulham for a win, the visitors finished with seven defenders and two defensive midfielders on the field – is it too cruel to suggest that Parker was battling for job here? Conspiracy aside, I can appreciate the manager doing everything possible to claim a crucial win, but it is interesting to compare to his own words about his football philosophy. After questions on his slow possession style, Scott has previously said, “I can understand people’s opinion – not just how I want to play but the identity of this football team and how I feel is best to win football matches – if we weren’t creating chances, if we weren’t hitting the target. But you can’t back up that argument. I will stick with it – 100 percent.” A fun twist, he’ll stick with it 100 percent, bar leading 2-1 at the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium.

In fact, the game tested a lot of what Scott Parker’s Fulham has been about. Though there were moments of prolonged passing play, notably QPR presses were met with long balls into the forward three and big long switches of play were obvious throughout the game. Fulham were far more direct last night than when they Aleksandar Mitrovic to call upon. The inability to create clear cut chances is especially galling and, aside from Christie’s energetic display, the Whites really didn’t offer much incisive attacking play.

Six games to go and, if West Bromwich Albion win tonight, it’s seven points to chase down. The other problem, of course, is that we’ve let Brentford in between us and they don’t look like stopping. Sure, three points are nice, especially given the poor run since the end of lockdown, but it is also important to reflect on the quality of performance. Nobody could claim with a straight face that this was the type of football Fulham were playing against Millwall in the early weeks of the season and the truth is a bit of magic and QPR’s lack of quality got us over the line. The test for Parker will be to use that precious victory as a springboard to better things.