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Silva’s stylish side sets pulses racing

It’s been a while since I penned my thoughts, in fact, I’ve really not written for a long time. I won’t go into everything, but I think something you learn once you enter your 20s is life isn’t what you imagine as a child or teen. Sure, if you know what you want to do with your life and know the path to get there – it helps. As someone who left school not really knowing, each day can leave you feeling quite lost. Well finally I feel somewhat on track, with a new job and an actual career path. My work-life balance is the best it’s been and philosophically I’m happier, healthier and better. Though hurdles will continue to occur for someone like me, I’m the best place I’ve been to bat them away.

Anyway, onto Fulham. We’re coming to a key part of the season for Marco Silva’s side. Statistically, half of the sides that top the table on Boxing Day go on to win the Championship title. With no international break until March, this is a period where Europe’s most demanding division turns treacherous. The games come thick and thin with the build up to Christmas and that will test even the strongest of squads. Silva has so far coped with injury crises – Denis Odoi deputised for Kenny Tete admirably even if nobody would pretend that the Belgian veteran is as accomplished a right back as the Dutch international. No one foresaw Fabio Carvalho’s early importance coming but even with his injury, but Fulham have adjusted to his prolonged absence pretty healthily. The Domingos Quina experiment might have been quickly abandoned but Bobby Decordova-Reid has slotted into the number ten role nicely – only Harry Wilson has carved out more chances for the Whites this season. Even Tosin Adarabioyo’s suspension for that moment of madness against West Brom hasn’t unduly discomforted the defence, as Michael Hector filled in to good effect.

Confidence must be high at Craven Cottage after a run of six straight wins, during which Silva’s side have amassed 21 goals and conceded only one. The strength in depth that the Fulham head coach has at his disposal is demonstrated by the fact that the returning Cairney, Carvalho and Tete have started our most recent fixtures on the bench. Rodrigo Muniz appears to acclimatising nicely to English football – notching an impressive brace after coming on as a substitute against Blackburn – and the Brazilian forward has detailed that he is enjoying learning from the best number nine in the division. Aleksandar Mitrovic, whose own confidence has to be soaring following his winner in Lisbon, dragged a limp Scott Parker side to promotion two seasons back but he looks an entirely different animal these days. Mitrovic is playing with a smile on his face and looks like scoring with every shot at the moment. There’s certainly no irony in singing about him being on fire at the moment.

His moment of individual redemption against Portugal was richly deserved after the ignominy of that penalty shoot-out failure against Scotland that cost Serbia a spot at the European Championships. So extraordinary are his scoring exploits that Fulham look utterly transformed in attack and the threat they pose in the opposition penalty area stands in stark contrast to the side that surrendered their Premier League safety so meekly, with Parker not even considering Mitrovic as an option to score the goals that an imperilled Fulham side badly needed. Looking back, that appears a horrific misjudgement at best.

Fulham’s current squad contains a multitude of talents and could have been guided to promotion by a PE teacher – the players have shown that already. The key thing is that Marco Silva can be the man to stabilise Fulham as a Premier League outfit – that is why he took this job. The football has been exhilarating at times, largely dominant in possession but with vertical threat and ruthlessness to create chance after chance. This Fulham side has scored 13 more goals than their nearest ‘goals for’ challenger whilst staying solid at the back with the second best defence in terms of goals conceded. Silva’s side have scored one more goal at this stage of last season than Jean Tigana’s 2000-01 promotion team featuring Louis Saha (who scored 27 in the league for that season – whilst Aleksandar Mitrovic sits on 20 with 29 games left to play).

Fulham have three fixtures to play before Parker’s return to Craven Cottage with the league leaders Bournemouth on December 3rd, in what is arguably the first blockbuster battle of the promotion campaign. All three matches before the Cherries come to the capital appear winnable, although nothing can be certain in such an unpredictable lead. Fulham host the two sides occupying the last two spots in the Championship relegation zone, before heading to Deepdale to take on Frankie McAvoy’s Preston North End, who are also currently ensconced in the bottom half of the table.

Without looking too far in the future, you get the feeling that this run to the New Year will be vital in Fulham’s title ambitions (yes, you get a gong for finishing 2nd but to go up as champions should be the only goal). In this December period, Fulham will want to set the tone, much like they did post-Coventry and with lots of games with little break – the entire squad will have to match the intensity, form and difference of their position group. If Aleksandar Mitrovic gets a knock, Rodrigo Muniz has to become the ‘big dog’ and the same applies for all of those on the fringes. If you’re on the fringes now – the chances are you’ll be replaced in the Premier League so step up when it’s your turn. That’s the attitude of champions and champions is what Fulham have to be.

It should be fun and I’m already looking forward to that first Friday in December, when Parker comes back in front of the Sky cameras and under the flood lights. You can’t fail to have been enthralled by the way Silva has taken to the early stages of his task of securing an immediate return to the top flight and, given the way he has spoken about having unfinished business in the Premier League, he will be determined to establish Fulham as a force at English football’s top table. This is shaping up to be a season that Fulham fans will look back on with similar fondness to that of 2000/01, when Tigana’s team stormed to promotion with style and panache.

Another update – I’m looking at writing more but sometimes I lack the initial creative idea or I start writing and can’t get the right flow (this for example, I’m not sure is great) but if there’s any questions you want answered or anything studied or discussed, send me a message on Twitter (@frankieptaylor) or respond to my articles and I’ll note to see what I can do.

Early encouragement on our Cottage return

Fulham fans got their first viewing of Marco Silva’s Fulham on Saturday in the final pre-season friendly prior to the season opener at Middlesbrough. Having arrived at the Cottage full of anticipation, a traffic incident caused the Fulham bus to arrive late, there was a period to enjoy a £5 Carlsberg or two and admire the sheer size of the new and improved Riverside Stand. It was fun that the largest and heaviest rainfall came whilst in no-man’s land and walking through Bishop’s Park so with damp clothes, wet shoes and a sorry soul – we awaited the arrival of the Fulham coach as Charlton’s players strolled around the pitch.

I’m sure you’ll all see at the Middlesbrough game or some point across the season but the new stand is seriously sexy, it makes you dream of one day being able to do the same with the Putney and Hammersmith Ends. As usual, the keepers came out to warm up first with Paolo Gazzaniga’s presence was notable. He’s much bigger than I really remembered from his time at Tottenham and Southampton and compared to young Luca Ashby-Hammond, it looked rather like man and a boy. The warm up was interesting given what unfolded when the rest of the players emerged from the tunnel.

Whilst there were the typical movement related drills there was a period where the 10 outfielders split up into two sets of 5. The first five (Kenny Tete, Tosin, Tim Ream, Antonee Robinson and Tyrese Francois) worked on moving the ball with Francois, the 21 year old academy product from Australia as the catalyst for a lot of the circulation between here and the back four. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa joined Anthony Knockaert, Fabio Carvalho, Neeskens Kebano and Aleksandar Mitrovic on shooting drills; the much welcome return of Luis Boa Morte around Craven Cottage laying off for the attacking players to take aim. The next notable drill was then Tim Ream and Tosin Adarabioyo playing passes wide to Kenny Tete and Antonee Robinson with the two full backs taking turns to deliver crosses into the box for a mix of three players – one moving to the front post, one to the back box and another around the penalty spot.

Whilst that may be inconsequential to many it was a preview of the patterns of play to keep an eye on through the season. That continued throughout the game, Anthony Knockaert and Neeskens Kebano constantly looked to dart behind with passes to be clipped through and whenever the ball was wide, the full backs would enthusiastically look to support forward play, more notably with Antonee Robinson and Neeskens Kebano than Anthony Knockaert and Kenny Tete, with Knockaert coming more central and looking like the French winger we all know and love. Vertical running off the ball was particular prominent and should be a key feature of Silva-ball as the opening goal came from a perfect through pass from Tyrese Francois to his fellow academy product Fabio Carvalho who perfectly timed his run to finish past Charlton’s Craig MacGillivray.

You could definitely see Fulham were working on some patterns of play and some aspects tactically yet to be perfected – perhaps understandably given how short Silva’s spell working with the squad has been. It still smacked of pre-season as both sets of players weren’t playing with the same intensity as they would do in a month’s time after a few league games under their belt. Paolo Gazzaniga didn’t have a save to make but showed his size and experience to claim crosses when they did come in. Tim Ream was imperious leaving Jayden Stockley and Conor Washington feeding on scraps.

But, Marco Silva’s black and white army is a go and as the intensity picks up and the weeks of training continue, we’ll see how the early glimpses translate into concrete performances when the Championship campaign begins shortly. This was an encouraging afternoon where you see how we can develop, especially considering the acquisition of Harry Wilson as an almost number ten off the right and Rodrigo Muniz, who Warnock described as being ‘a different option with energy and pace’. Running in behind can compliment Aleksandar Mitrovic or pose a different probem for defences and we’re yet to see how Harrison Reed, Tom Cairney, Bobby Decordova-Reid, Ivan Cavaleiro and perhaps Michael Hector slot into the Silva system.

All in all, it was great to have live football back. The commute over to Putney, the walk through Bishop’s Park, the people and community, the songs remembering Kevin McDonald and Tony Fisher alongside the usual banter directed at the opposition. It was wonderful to back at our historic home again – and the signs are good for a positive start to the season.

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.