Fulham faced Swansea City having won just one of their last five games after only picking up a point at Ashton Gate on Saturday. The Whites were keen to return to winning ways having lost some of the momentum generated by an excellent August but the Welsh outfit looked like formidable opposition, having reached the Championship play-offs in both of the last two seasons.
Marco Silva went with his usual 4-2-3-1 system, deploying Bobby Decordova-Reid behind Aleksandar Mitrovic, who had missed several stoppage time chances against Bristol City. When they were without the ball, Harrison Reed and Jean-Michael Seri occupied the conventional holding midfield roles filling possible passing lanes and reducing the gap between Fulham’s defence and midfield.
Swansea set up in a 3-4-3 formation, committing numbers high up the field to press Fulham in attempt to pinch possession in dangerous positions. The visitors looked to dominate the ball, patiently seeking out opportunities to exploit any weakness in the home defence. Russell Martin, impressive in his time at Milton Keynes, is the youngest manager in the English football pyramid and is implementing a fresh, possession-based style at the Liberty Stadium.
Martin’s adherence to his principles is admirable but Fulham went in front twelve minutes in the game when Tim Ream’s header found Aleksandar Mitrovic in the area and the Serbian slotted home after turning impressively. There was more than a whiff of offside about the goal, which suggested fortune had smiled on the Whites after Kasey Palmer’s equaliser at the weekend had been allowed to stand.
Fulham 2-0 Swansea City (Mitrovic 12)
Fulham’s second goal came from a slick counter attack which began with a smart interception from Joe Bryan inside his own half. The left back immediately burst forward, looking to exploit a five-on-four situation. Bryan heads inside, fixing Ben Cabnago on him, and opening up space for Neeskens Kebano outside him. Ideally, Ethan Laird would have been able to track the Congolese winger’s run but, after being caught upfield and with the speed and intensity of Fulham’s attack, the right wing back can’t get back into position.
Kebano has time to pick out a cross and there are three white shirts in the area against two Swansea defenders. Mitrovic makes a clever run from behind Naughton to get to the ball first. He finds the far corner that Ben Hamer can’t cover with a clever finish to a fine Fulham move.
Fulham 2-1 Swansea City (Paterson 38)
Swansea had seen plenty of the ball but barely created a chance before Flynn Downes found Joel Piroe just short of the halfway line. The pass into Piroe pulls Tosin Adarabioyo in with the Dutch forward, creating a dog leg in the Fulham back four with space for Swansea to exploit in behind. Seri and Reed are also drawn to the ball – making those gaps even greater.
A sharp turn from Piroe gets him away from all three and offering an angle to pass through to Paterson, who is goal side of Odoi. Tosin being so far out of the Fulham defensive line means that there is a massive space left open to be exploited.
Fulham 3-1 Swansea City (Mitrovic 45)
When Fulham had the ball in defensive areas, Swansea sought to press them really high up the pitch and steal possession in the Cottagers’ half. They had four men pushing high up the pitch but as soon as Ream works the ball to Seri and Fulham are behind the press, the visitors are on the back foot and Fulham can take advantage.
Once the ball gets to Decordova-Reid’s feet and he can turn and run at the Swansea defence, Bidwell is forced into the centre of the pitch. This is because Matt Grimes had been pressing close to the Fulham area, meaning the ex-QPR and Brentford full back gets drawn into trying to fill a gap in central midfield. That frees up space down the right flank for Odoi to gallop into and stretches the Swansea back three.
With Bidwell caught in the midfield and Odoi in plenty of space. Manning is forced to come across and press the Belgian. This, though, opens up space between Manning and Naughton for Odoi to put a cross into and Mitrovic to attack and the Serbian’s sublime first time finish wrapped up his hat trick.
Fulham travelled to Birmingham on Wednesday night with plenty of questions hanging over their start to the season following a surprise defeat at the hands of newly-promoted Blackpool at the weekend. Marco Silva demanded a response from his side and the Whites had the perfect incentive to get their campaign back on track immediately as a win at St. Andrew’s would take them top of the Championship. Blues, though, had made a strong start to the season under Lee Bowyer, sitting just two points behind their opponents at kick off, and their miserly defence had conceded just three league goals.
Silva – perhaps stung by the insipid Fulham display at the seaside – made four changes to the starting eleven for the trip to the Midlands, having entrusted his international players with the task of hitting the ground running at Blackpool. Nathaniel Chalobah was handed a debut in central midfield, with Harrison Reed returning to the starting line up and Jean-Michael Seri, perhaps surprisingly, sitting deepest of a midfield three. Harry Wilson and Bobby Decordova-Reid stayed very wide, hoping to exploit the spaces left by Birmingham’s back three.
When Fulham didn’t have the ball, Reed tucked in next to Seri in more of a 4-2-3-1 – which was similar to how Fulham have lined up for much of the season under Silva. Chalobah, Decordova-Reid and Wilson lead an energetic press higher up the pitch, but the visitors remained largely compact and appeared happy to hit their opponents on the counter-attack.
Birmingham played in a 3-4-3 with the aim of pressing Fulham high up the pitch. Chong appeared responsible for man marking Seri and the early pressure initially resulted in the visitors conceding possession regularly in their own half. The Blues struggled to deal with Fulham’s offensive power though, committing so many men forward to press Fulham high, exposing their back three to the pace and movement of the Whites’ forward line when Silva’s side were able to bypass that press. The hosts tried to take full advantage from long throws, committing numbers into the box. Fulham dealt with this approach effectively on the whole, but it became a different proposition when Troy Deeney was introduced in the second half and a penalty – which Deeney dispatched – came from a long throw.
BIRMINGHAM CITY 0-1 FULHAM (Odoi ’10)
Denis Odoi rose highest to head home Fulham’s first goal of the night unmarked from a move worked on the training ground. He ghosted to the front post unmarked in large part due to Chalobah’s hulking presence. The former Watford midfielder stood his ground in the box blocking the run of Bela who was trying to mark Odoi, allowing the Belgian to find a free pocket of space in the box to head home.
This could have been a planned set play move as we have already seen Fulham score a goal similarly earlier in the season. Mitrovic lost his man this time against Hull, as Tosin blocked the Hull defender allowing the Serbian a free header at the near post.
A penalty from Mitrovic, won by a beautiful bit of skill from Chalobah, gave Fulham further breathing space at half time and – in truth – Silva’s side looked threatening every time they went forward.
BIRMINGHAM 0-3 FULHAM (Wilson ’56)
Birmingham started to commit more numbers forward in the second half but as Fulham turned over possession to start a counter attack, over half the Birmingham team were beyond the ball providing Fulham with a great opportunity to attack. Because of this lack of numbers back, the Birmingham centre-back steps forward to press Reed who finds himself in acres of space. This creates the space in behind for Harry Wilson to advance into leaving himself with over half the pitch on the right to himself.
Reed does well in releasing the ball to Chalobah, creating a much better angle for a pass to get through to Wilson. Jérémie Bela has to work harder to get back and cover for his left centre back and make it harder for Wilson to get behind.
Harry Wilson then has the pace to run onto the ball and get past the last Birmingham defender putting him through with a simple one on one that he makes no mistake with arguably putting the game to bed and Fulham 3-0 to the good.
BIRMINGHAM 0-3 FULHAM (Mitrovic 83)
With just under ten minutes to go in the game, Fulham were still putting Birmingham under pressure forcing them to pass back from midfield to defence. Marc Roberts then had limited options with all passing opportunities being tightly marked by a Fulham player. With Mitrovic closing him down, this forced the error as the centre-half attempted to turn out of trouble and the Serbian stripped him of possession quite easily.
Mitrovic carries the ball to the edge of the box and does well to hold the defender while waiting for support to arrive. By coming slightly inside, space is created down the wing for Jean-Michael Seri to utilise on the overlap getting in behind Birmingham again.
The Birmingham defence is then caught ball watching and are all drawn to Seri. This allows Mitrovic to move into the box unmarked in a huge pocket of space in the box allowing a simple pass from Seri and a comfortable first time finish for Mitrovic.
Fulham would have travelled to Blackpool in good spirits following the international break after completing the first month of the season unbeaten, with Marco Silva winning the Championship manager of the month award and the Whites sitting at the top of the table. Predictions of a comfortable Cottagers victory were misplaced as the Whites’ air of invincibly evaporated at the seaside, with former Fulham youngster Josh Bowler scoring the only goal of the goal at the start of the second half to give the Tangerines a thoroughly deserved first win of the new campaign.
Fulham set up in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation that Silva has deployed since taking over at Craven Cottage. Domingos Quina was handed a debut after joining from Watford on transfer deadline day, replacing the injured Fabio Carvalho, who proved to be a significant loss. Ivan Cavaleiro came in for Harry Wilson, who was still suffering from the concussion sustained with Wales on international duty. The visitors struggled to get going at all in the game, unable to permeate the Blackpool press, with the tigerish home side putting in 21 tackles in the game – more than they’ve made in any other match so far this season.
Blackpool began in a 4-4-2 and they put their high-flying opponents under the pump from the outset. Neil Critchley’s outfit were relentless in their pressuring, rushing around the white shirts and regularly forcing mistakes high up the pitch. Towards the end, with a deserved lead to hang onto, the hosts set up a lot more defensively with two deep banks of four – almost sitting deeper and challenging Fulham to break them down.
Jean Michael-Seri had one of Fulham’s few half chances in the first half. As the ball was switched out to Decordova-Reid, we saw Antonee Robinson driving forward down the left flank, fixing Blackpool right-back Jordan-Lawrence Gabriel in position and allowing Decordova-Reid the opportunity to drive inside and take on the second Blackpool midfielder who tracked back to try and cover the threat from the former Bristol City forward.
Decordova-Reid beats his man to link up with Mitrovic as Fulham hit a point in the attack where they often find themselves in around the edge of the opponents box. Decordorva-Reid tries to drift in behind the Blackpool back four, but the pass from Mitrovic can’t get through. This is because Blackpool worked hard to stay compact and get numbers behind the ball making it extremely difficult to get any pass in behind them, forcing Fulham to shoot from range on multiple occasions.
When the rebound from Mitrovic through ball falls kindly for Seri on the edge of the box, the Blackpool defence are quick to close him down by throwing bodies in front of the ball. Seri is limited to either shooting from range first time or trying to make a fifty-fifty pass to Cavaleiro, who is well marked by Luke Garbutt. The option for the shot isn’t a bad one due to the pressure from the defence, and the Ivorian midfielder was unlucky as his effort flew fractionally wide.
BLACKPOOL 1-0 FULHAM (BOWLER 49)
Fulham successfully defended a Blackpool free-kick at the start of the second half looked set for a promising counter-attack led by Robinson, Seri and Quina. But the move petered out as sloppy passing surrendered possession to the home side inside the Fulham half. Blackpool could new exploit a vulnerable defence with four white shirts out of position.
There was a distinct lack of Fulham pressure down the Blackpool right. Bowler made good progress down that flank and an overlap from Gabriel dragged Robinson slightly wider to track the run of the full back, opening up a pocket of space between Seri and the American international for the winger to drive into.
A lapse in communication between Robinson and Seri means that by the time Seri realises that he has to stop Bowler’s run, the wide man was already past him and the Ivorian couldn’t make a challenge to cut him off. Tim Ream could have also realised the danger slightly earlier in the attack and come across to help deal with the threat that Bowler posed. The American veteran wasn’t marking anyone and could have stepped into the space putting more pressure onto Bowler making it much more difficult for Bowler to get the shot off.
There are also question marks about Paulo Gazzaniga’s goalkeeping here. It never looks good for a goalkeeper to be beaten at the near post – but this one looked particularly poor.
KEY TACTICAL TAKEAWAYS
The biggest obstacle Fulham failed to overcome was playing through the Blackpool press with the visitors’ midfield proving particularly culpable. Seri and Josh Onomah are extremely talented footballers, but they don’t have the pace and energy that Harrison Reed can inject from the base of midfield. As a combination, they might be too leisurely, which can result in a rather laboured tempo when faced with a high press. On reflection, this felt like a fixture that would have suited Reed, who could have made a real difference in curbing Blackpool’s breaks as well as moving the ball more quickly to stretch the home defence.
Going forward, Fulham sorely missed the creativity of Fabio Carvalho and Harry Wilson. They created far fewer chances than in previous games and never seriously looked like scoring. The pair would have changed the angle of attack and asked more questions of the Blackpool defence. Fulham only had four shots on target, a significant reduction of the nine they managed against Stoke before the international break.
None of this is meant to detract from a brilliant Blackpool performance. Critchley’s side were extremely effective in stopping Fulham from playing and proved clinical in front of goal when Bowler got free down the right flank. This game reiterates the difficulty and competitiveness of the Championship, but as long as both Silva and Fulham can learn the lessons from a frustrating afternoon swiftly, they can be still of confident of a strong season.
Fulham’s win over Stoke City last weekend might have been routine in the end, but it was certainly billed as one of the toughest challenges Marco Silva would have faced during his short time in charge at Craven Cottage. The Potters had made a terrific start to the season and travelled to the capital in third place, with nothing to split the early pacesetters. Reviewing the game, it was very interesting to see how Fulham set up against a relatively new Stoke system and how their movement in the final third undid the visitors. Here’s the breakdown of how the Whites maintained their unbeaten start to the season.
Fulham started in Marco Silva’s familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, with Jean-Michael Seri acting as a deep-lying playmaker, looking to receive the ball from the centre-backs and transition the ball into wide areas or the final third. Josh Onomah played further forward when in possession in-between the lines of midfield and attack. When the Whites were without the ball, Onomah dropped back in and sat next to Seri with the Fulham front four pressing higher up the pitch. The high press put the visitors under significant pressure in their own half, creating opportunities for the home side to pinch the ball in dangerous positions.
Michael O’Neill’s Stoke City set up in the 5-3-2 that he has largely favoured since the summer, pushing the wingbacks forward in possession, with Steven Fletcher and Jacob Brown pressing the Fulham backline out of possession. When Fulham had the ball out wide, the wing back would press with the wide centre back coming across to cover in a traditional full-back position.
FULHAM 1-0 STOKE CITY (WILSON 5)
As Fulham move the ball across to the edge of the pitch, Tom Smith moves forward to press Antonee Robinson. This pulled the outer centre back to cover at right back. Harry Wilson then dropped into a pocket of space between midfield and defence giving himself space to turn and put the Stoke defence under pressure.
The pass to Harry Wilson takes the Stoke midfield out of the game and leaves several players turning back to face their own goal. Wilson then turns and runs at Østigard pulling him inside creating space for Bobby Decordova-Reid to attack down the wing where Smith had pressed, leaving the space in behind for Fulham to exploit.
With the speed that Fulham attacked and the numbers that they committed forward, Stoke weren’t able to get numbers back to help support leaving space for Wilson and Mitrovic to work a chance resulting in the first goal.
FULHAM 2-0 STOKE CITY (DECORDOVA-REID 53)
With a kick up field, Mitrovic wins the header against the Stoke centre-half taking him out of the game for the Fulham attack. This allows Fulham to run at a disjointed Stoke backline, with the Stoke right-back Tom Smith also caught out of position.
Mitrovic spots the space Smith would normally be covering, so runs across and behind the centre back into the pocket of space, as the defender on the far side is also playing him onside creating that pocket of space in behind to attack.
Bobby Decordova-Reid gets onto the rebound from Mitrovic’s effort due to the sheer number of players Fulham are committing forward creating a 50/50 chance on whether the ball rebounded to a Fulham forward or a Stoke defender.
FULHAM 3-0 STOKE CITY (MITROVIC 73)
With the ball out wide at Bobby Decordova-Reid’s feet, the key overlap from Antonee Robinson fixes the Stoke right back allowing Decordova-Reid the time on the ball to drive inside and pick out the cross under no pressure.
The run towards the front post from Mitrovic pulls the Stoke defender across with him, taking the opportunity to clear the ball away as the defender vacates the space, allowing an opportunity round the back for Wilson to attack the ball at the back post.
O’Neill will be desperately disappointed with the defending for this goal. Souttar in the centre is not alive to either the danger at the far post or Mitrovic lurking behind him and the Serbian has an easy finish from close range once Wilson works the ball back across goal.