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.

What now?

Well, yesterday sucked. I usually like to take some time before sitting down to express some thoughts and analyse but honestly, as I sit here and type drinking a cup of coffee listening to Angie McMahon, I still don’t really know where I’m going here.

I’m perplexed by the impressive first half honestly, we were thoroughly excellent in the first 45, dominating possession of the football and holding Leeds into their own half and isolating Stuart Dallas in one-v-one match-ups against Anthony Knockaert, which Knockaert was winning, peppering four shots but without seriously testing the goalkeeper. We overrun the Leeds midfield and they’d have been delighted to go in level let alone a goal up.

The second half was simply a disaster. It was far from a good performance from anyone over the course of the game but I do feel it apt to repeat a point I made on Twitter, both Harrison Reed and Michael Hector were playing in central partners but on their own. Tim Ream and Harry Arter’s performances contributed to the fragility of the left hand side with Joe Bryan like a deer in headlights not knowing whether he was coming or going. Leeds are credited with creating five chances from open play in the game – and four of those five came down the left hand side of our defence.

How to solve a problem like the left flank? It’s been a problem area in many of the games this season but the last two matches have just highlighted exactly how it can cost us games. I think it’s time to change the team about a bit and it wouldn’t be the first time this season that Joe Bryan has been dropped for poor defensive performances but maybe now it’s time for club stalwart Tim Ream to join him; he just looks finished. With Terence Kongolo injured and Alfie Mawson not in the match squad for the past two fixtures, his replacement would likely be Maxime Le Marchand who hasn’t started a game for Fulham since November and you have to go back to August in the EFL Cup against Southampton to find his last start at centre back.

This team feels a little lost at the moment and in desperate need of a spark. Sometimes that comes with a change of personnel, or a change of shape. Now Slavisa Jokanovic kept faith with the famous 4-3-3 that won promotion at Wembley but you wonder how that season may have ended if not for Matt Targett – who not only solidified the left back but allowed Ryan Sessegnon to push up to the wing – and Aleksandar Mitrovic who gave Fulham a forward, when Jokanovic had previously played Stefan Johansen as a false nine, such was the ineffectiveness of Rui Fonte. It’s too far into the season for Scott Parker to be so one-dimensional when this team’s fragilities have been exposed and I think a switch to a 3-4-3 of sorts could be ideal.

In our system, we’re putting pressure on our full backs to get forward and attack but Ream can’t defend that channel nor is a midfielder dropping in to cover (see Jordan Henderson’s work allowing Trent Alexander-Arnold to essentially play as a winger). In a 3-4-3, our full backs (now wing backs) are naturally positioned more aggressively allowing them to support attacks quicker but they’re also covered by three behind and typically a midfielder as well (Harrison Reed likely). Suddenly, Fulham are attacking with the two wing backs maintaining width, a central midfielder supporting and three up front – it’s a six pronged attack.

Teams to think of in this shape would be Wolves, who comfortably won the title with their wing backs (Matt Doherty and Barry Douglas) contributing 27 goals (more than Anthony Knockaert, Bobby Decordova-Reid and Anthony Knockaert combined this season). Neves could dictate games knowing he had three centre backs behind plus Roman Saiss covering, width in the wing backs allowing Jota and Cavaleiro/Costa to float in between the lines as options. Jota scored 17 this season and Cavaleiro assisted 12, not only did Wolves outscore Slavisa’s promotion side ‘the Entertainers’ they also had the best defence in the division.

Another team to consider would be Sheffield United who actually utilised a three-man defence with a strike partnership – meaning their spare man would float around as a 10. Since promotion to the Premier League this has been tweaked somewhat, adding a holding midfielder to cover those famed overlapping centre halves. I wouldn’t expect Scott to be as bold as to go with overlapping centre backs but the principles are similar in it allowed Norwood and Fleck to control games in the middle. Sheffield United, like Wolves, had the best defence in the division and finished fourth for goals scored (their goals largely came from the front two in Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick). Fulham, on the other hand, have scored fewer goals than fourteenth placed QPR and as many as relegation-threatened Hull City.

Onto how Fulham may look if they were to break with Parker’s favoured formation. It makes most sense to move towards a 3-4-3 to retain the wide players (also with Aboubakar Kamara seemingly injured, we’re not exactly spoiled for choice with strikers). Marek Rodak retains his place in goal, Denis Odoi can comfortably play the right side of the back three, his experience playing centrally in a two as well as being confident pulling wide into the fullback positions to cover is vital. Michael Hector is the tank in the middle and Maxime Le Marchand, like Odoi but less comfortable, has experience playing full back and can pull wide if need be; he’s also comfortable on the ball and we won’t lose anything in terms of distribution from the back. Joe Bryan’s performances would likely improve with the freedom to fly forward whilst his left back area is covered. I’d go Cyrus Christie as the right wing back, and while he’s no Ryan Fredericks, he can fly and bomb up and down the wing. We’ve not seen Christie’s best at Fulham and perhaps he may thrive in a wing-back role.

In midfield, Harrison Reed is one of the midfield two, his job would be much like Romain Saiss at Wolves, break up play, cover the back three and give it to the attackers. I don’t think Tom Cairney has the range to play as his partner, I’d probably go Stefan Johansen who can switch play, create and cover from a deeper midfield position. But no, Cairney isn’t getting dropped, I’d play him as the ‘right’ of the front three but in reality, he can go where he wants. Just get into space, receive and create, my inspiration for this would be Wigan’s 343 under Roberto Martinez where Shaun Maloney was excellent in doing just that: he created most chances, was second top scorer and had the most assists; Tom Cairney can flourish in a role merely focused on being free in between the lines and making progressive passes.

The other two up top are quite simple, it’s Aleksandar Mitrovic down the middle and Ivan Cavaleiro to the left. Cavaleiro has excelled in this position and has the flexibility to play on either flank and can ask serious questions of the defence with movements inside, runs in behind, or floating over to the right to create overloads and go down the line. In this shape, when the ball is on the byline in possession of the wing back, you could have the opposite wide player and Aleksandar Mitrovic in the box, the opposite winger can take a wide position in the area whilst Stefan Johansen can float around the edge.

I think with a 3-4-3, we can get some defensive solidity on top of allowing us to fire a lot of players forward, maintain the full width of the pitch and have multiple players pick up the holes in the opposition defence. I think it gives you flexibility to be aggressive with subs (dropping TC into the midfield two and putting on a Bobby Decordovia-Reid or Anthony Knockaert in the front three) or gain solidity by quickly switching to a 3-5-2 simply by dropping Cairney into the midfield or Kevin McDonald can come into the 3-4-3 and offer the Matic presence from Chelsea 343 under Antonio Conte (another successful side).

Even during a game, you could have the players simply shuffle over so Denis Odoi shapes up as a traditional right back, the centre back partnership turns into Hector and Le Marchand as Bryan slips into his old left back spot and Cyrus Christie is then a wide player (or vice versa, Christie right back, Odoi and Hector centre back, Le Marchand slides to left back and Bryan maintains a more naturally attack position). The fact that we can do so much with one movement or one sub asks so many questions of the opposition. Fuck it Scott, what have we got to lose?

I didn’t intend this to be an ‘I can do better’ tactical post, but it does outline an alternative to what has been quite formulaic football of late. My coffee is finished, I’m now listening to ‘Summer City’ by Chasing Madison and suddenly everything feels rosy (until Tuesday night). I didn’t want to focus on ‘who could we appoint next’ but I am quite desperate to see Scott Parker do something inventive to find a win as we currently have no momentum and seemingly no confidence to succeed in the playoffs. What say you?

Reed shines even as Fulham full short

Well, football is back. In a whirlwind few months we’ve been tortured with bad news on what feels like a daily basis. Admittedly, my mental health is imbalanced at best, periods of deep depression, hating my own existence and then disappearing to take time to myself (you’ll notice I have a new Twitter account). I’m trying to surround myself with more positivity, more things that make me happy and the return of football was to help. Although Fulham’s result today was more bad news to add to the list, as a lover of the game in general, it’s been great to spend 90 minutes not thinking about life, just enjoying the game, analysing where they’re won and lost. That’s what makes me happy. So I’m not going to talk about the game negatively today, but I’m going to swoon over the return of ginger haired midfielder Harrison Reed.

Having not played a competitive game since New Years Day, Harrison Reed came into the base of midfield today and put in a phenomenal performance. He patrolled in front of the back four with excellent energy, recovered the ball in an inspired manner and not only was tidy on the ball (highest passing accuracy of the 22 starters), he threaded through an excellent ball to Bobby Decordova-Reid for the biggest opening for Fulham in the 90 that the Jamaican forward crashed against the post.

It was the most impressive individual performance in the middle of the park for Fulham I’ve seen for a while (although perhaps my memory is dazed by the break). Reed put in the kind of performance that should’ve had Tony Khan scrambling for the phone to work out how to make the loan permanent. The 25 year old former England youth international showed everything that’s required to play the holding role for Fulham, he was quick along the floor to break up play, intercept passes or divert second balls to a teammate. Whilst others were anonymous, Harrison Reed was undoubtedly the man of the match despite Sky’s award to eventual match winner Emiliano Marcondes.

A youth teammate of Matt Targett at Southampton, Fulham cannot allow this loanee to get away. There was some debate leading to kick off about who should start at the base of midfield with alternatives being Kevin McDonald or Harry Arter, but Reed not only took that position with both hands today, it was the kind of performance that made you think he’s absolutely undroppable for future fixtures.

I also felt Bobby Decordova-Reid showed more promise in that deeper position today. While Fulham were unable to get a real hold of midfield and create chances with much frequency, Bobby buzzed around midfield making a few ball recoveries but more notably looked to combine with Anthony Knockaert down the right hand side and offer some running in behind the opposition defence. Though his shot hit the bar early on in the tie, those positions running beyond Aleksandar Mitrovic as a ‘free’ player is how I see Bobby affecting games, more shots in the box and see him as a real option to help Aleksandar Mitrovic carry the load of scoring goals for Fulham.

Lastly, a congratulations to academy graduate Sylvester Jasper. He had already made his competitive debut earlier in the season at the Etihad but his fine performances for the U18s this season were rewarded with his first league game and he actually topped the Fulham side for successful dribbles despite few minutes on the pitch. Another milestone for the academy and it won’t be the last we hear of 18 year old Sylvester Jasper.

So there we have it, I’m sure many of you will understandably be disappointed following today’s results but a positive spin on today. Reed was absolutely marvellous.