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Nketiah breaks Fulham hearts

Football is a very cruel game. Fulham, no strangers to late heartbreak, were denied a precious – and unlikely – win at Arsenal this afternoon when Eddie Nketiah poked home an equaliser in the seventh minute of stoppage time. Whether the dropped points after Josh Maja had calmly converted a second half spot-kick will matter in the final analysis remains to be seen – a second great escape would still have been heroic had the Whites held on here – but the agony remains immense. There was a case that Rob Holding, clearly offside in front of Alphonse Areola, was interfering with play but, perhaps – having already seen two Arsenal goals chalked off by the video assistant referee – Fulham were pushing their luck.

The margins are so fine now as to demand that Fulham have a flawless run in to the end of the season, whilst the two teams they are most likely to catch will have to implode. All those scenarios seem pretty fanciful, but Scott Parker would have been greatly encouraged by the character and fortitude displayed during this performance. The Fulham boss had made five changes after the stoppage-time defeat at home to out-of-form Wolves nine days ago and, after weathering a rather ropey start, his side coped well with Arsenal’s attacking threat for much of the contest.

Arsenal, also much-changed after their early burst blew away Slavia Prague in the Europa League in midweek, started with plenty of adventure. The recalled Gabriel Martinelli almost delivered the perfect start when the winger reached a lovely weighted pass from Alexandre Lacazette and lifted the ball over Areola and just wide. The French goalkeeper probably predicted he would have a busy afternoon and he spread himself instinctively to deny the Gabonese forward after Smith-Rowe had skipped to the byline far too easily.

Fulham’s moments of promise in and around the opposition area were few and far between in a first half that was mostly about containment. Maja had their best chance and was unlucky not to score, seeing an instinctive snapshot deflect off Holding and trickle agonisingly wide after Bobby Decordova-Reid’s ambitious drive from distance had ricocheted off Dani Ceballos. There were arguably fortunate to still be level at the break when Ceballos was denied a first Premier League goal as his fine header was ruled off when Bukayo Saka was adjudged fractionally offside. Joachim Andersen breathed a sigh of relief when a potential own goal against him was similarly chalked off just before half-time, although the offside against Smith-Rowe was much more clear cut.

The visitors came out on the front foot after the interval, but almost immediately paid the penalty when a promising attack broke down and the Gunners poured forward. Lacazette drove wide from a very presentable position and Saka, easily Arsenal’s most likely source of breaking the deadlock, then dangerously darted away from Antonee Robinson and almost surprised Areola at his near post – with his cross-cum-shot thudding off the woodwork. It looked as if Fulham would struggle to hold on to a point, but suddenly things got far better at the other end.

It came courtesy of Mario Lemina’s sense of adventure. The on-loan Southampton midfielder, who secured Fulham’s famous win at Anfield earlier this season with a fine strike, drove forward with purpose and almost found the rampaging right back Ola Aina in the Arsenal box. The ball bounced back towards Lemina, who got there just ahead of Gabriel, whose ill-timed challenge resulted in a penalty, awarded first by the referee’s assistant and confirmed by Stuart Attwell after a check at Stockley Park. Maja stepped up and sent the spot-kick high into the roof of the net, handing Fulham a critical advantage.

They so nearly held onto it. Arsenal’s striking resources, already diminished by the absence of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who contracted malaria during the recent international break, were depleted further when Lacazette limped off with what looked like an injured hamstring. A combination of Areola and Tosin Adarabioyo kept out a header from Nicolas Pepe at the far post when the winger looked certain to equalise and the goalkeeper then made excellent stops from Martinelli and Nketiah. Harrison Reed produced a brilliant block in the fifth minute of stoppage time as Arsenal closed in again, but Fulham couldn’t quite see it through to the end.

Nketiah’s poacher’s instinct robbed the Whites of their first top flight London derby win in 22 attempts, although it was something of a comedy of errors. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, presumably introduced to make Fulham harder to play through as time ticked away, somehow failed to keep the ball in the far side and Decordova-Reid needlessly conceded a corner when he failed to receive a shout that nobody in red was behind him at the far post. Goalkeeper Mat Ryan flicked Saka’s delivery across the face of goal and Smith-Rowe smashed it through a crowd of legs. Areola pushed it out, but only as far as Nketiah who gleefully accepted the gift.

Parker spoke in the week of Fulham needed to bounce back from a number of body blows and retain their belief, but this one gut punch it will prove very difficult to recover from.

ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Ryan; Bellerin (Pepe 68), Xhaka, Gabriel, Holding; Elneny (Partey 68), Ceballos; Saka, Martinelli, Smith-Rowe; Lacazette (Nketiah 70). Subs (not used): Leno, Cedric, Chambers, Mari, Willian, Nelson.

GOAL: Nketiah (90+7).

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Areola; Aina, Robinson, Andersen, Adarabioyo; Lemina, Anguissa; Cavaleiro (Bryan 84), Decordova-Reid, Lookman (Reed 69); Maja (Loftus-Cheek 77). Subs (not used): Fabri, Hector, Odoi, Ream, Onomah, Mitrovic.

BOOKED: Andersen, Decordova-Reid, Areola.

GOAL: Maja (pen 59).

REFEREE: Craig Pawson (South Yorkshire).

VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Stuart Attwell (Warwickshire).

Anguissa’s absence mirrors Fulham’s fall

As Fulham fell to defeat against Wolverhampton Wanderers on the evening when the headlines were dominated by the sad passing of Prince Phillip, making it four losses on the bounce and extending the side’s poor home form this season, Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa began proceedings on Scott Parker’s bench once again. Despite being perhaps the most talented player in the Riverside outfit’s roster, the midfielder only made his appearance in the 63rd minute. So, what has led to him being dropped to the bench in recent weeks?

Just a few weeks ago, the Cameroonian international was the first name on the team sheet. Parker looked towards him to provide an element of defensive stability, stopping the flow of goals that leaked past Fulham’s defence early in the season. He was deployed deep in the midfield, creating a fairly effective midfield duo alongside a box-to-box midfielder, as Lemina and Reed constantly rotated. However, Anguissa was able to sure up the defence whilst simultaneously making lung-busting runs forward with a beautiful balance of grace and power.

This was an important part of the 5-2-3 system that was first adopted against Leicester City in late November for attacking reasons as well, as Frank is able to break a press and add a creative element with his sublime passing – something that was crucial as the side’s number 10 was sacrificed for defensive numbers. Therefore, for many, Anguissa, who has previously been linked to Real Madrid, is the epitome of a segundo volante, defining the position with a unique mix of technical and physical prowess. In Zambo’s case, he is able to do everything that is needed of him. Well, except shoot.

This is an invaluable player to have, one that draws many envious comparisons from rival fans, such as that with Bissouma of Brighton and Hove Albion. However, as the Whites began to scramble for points to beat the looming drop, Anguissa himself has found himself dropped. Multiple changes in system and formation has led to Parker moving away from what had become a fairly settled 5-2-3 to multiple variations of four-at-the-back as he attempted to inject some creativity into the side with the re-introduction of a number 10 as Fulham struggled for goals.

Parker first tested a 4-2-3-1 in Fulham’s 0-0 draw with West Ham at the Cottage in early February, with Anguissa dropped to making a substitute appearance as the ex-Hammers man selected Reed and Lemina for a double pivot behind Ruben Loftus-Cheek. At the time, this was simply attributed to rotation as he had been substituted off against Leicester in the game before, having started all five league games in 2021. Fatigue began to show as he put in some displays that weren’t quite up to the standard that we had come to expect from him.

In fact, the fatigue was showing for the whole squad in January and February after Fulham’s COVID-19 outbreak. Whilst the no specific names of those who caught the virus were announced, the break clearly affected everyone, whether infected or not. Two weeks without training is a long time for footballers, just long enough for individuals to lose fitness and sharpness – especially if suffering from long-COVID, which has had a variety of effects on sufferers, with some athletes reporting that they are lacking energy and the lung capacity that they once had. Whether Anguissa was suffering the symptoms of this disease we don’t know, however the effects were there to be seen even as the squad carried on putting in impressive performances.

Over the coming games, it became abundantly clear that Anguissa was not at his best. The tactical reasons behind his drop-off in form after the introduction of the number 10 are fairly simple. The very presence of someone in that position dampens the need of creativity from deeper down the pitch, rendering the segundo volante role less potent going forward.

This is because the pocket of space that Frank would normally run into becomes crowded with Loftus-Cheek and whichever defender is assigned to marking him, disrupting the large space that once would have been left between the opposition’s defensive and midfield lines. A large part of the segundo volante’s role is to burst into this space, attracting opposition players and pulling them out of position, so allowing wingers to slip into the spaces that are left along their backline. Therefore, the presence of both a segundo volante and a number 10 within the same formation, in this case, had an inhibitive effect on both Anguissa and Loftus-Cheek.

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After Anguissa was phased out of the starting eleven, many noted just how well Reed was playing alongside Lemina. This is because the omission of the segundo volante role allowed the box-to-box role to have more expressive freedom. Harrison’s role was once to simply win the ball and give it to Anguissa, who would charge up the pitch like a bull. Then, Reed would shadow Zambo, staying slightly further down the pitch to try and prevent an opposition counterattack. Now, Reed and Lemina are free to add the creative element to their own game, no longer restricted in their role, thus explaining some of the impressive performances that we have seen from both, even if the scoreline doesn’t necessarily reflect the team’s performance.

Now, it seems as though Parker has chosen to stick with a midfield duo of Reed and Lemina – even as he returned to the 5-2-3 formation against Wolves. There are various reasons for this, however, whether the team is truly better off without him in the first XI is up for debate – especially as the defence seems to have returned to its leaky ways and the attack is still spluttering. With only 6 games left to save our souls, Parker must find a solution and quickly. Despite some of Loftus-Cheek’s impressive displays, quantitatively his return is awful. He is also far too inconsistent for my liking – especially as he seems to be inhibited by multiple players such as Cavaleiro, not just Anguissa.

So, could a 4-3-3 work with Anguissa playing as a deep lying midfielder with Lemina and Reed playing just in front of him? What do you think?

Traore pushes Fulham closer to drop

The sight of crestfallen Fulham players in tears after the final whistle told you everything. Scott Parker’s side had already blown two opportunities to move above Newcastle and out of the Premier League drop zone – and they couldn’t afford to squander another survival lifeline. There was no lack of effort but, following Sunday’s late collapse at Villa Park, the concession of Adama Traore’s stoppage-time winner – which flew past a culpable Alphonse Areola at his near post – felt like the hammer blow that will send Fulham tumbling out of the top flight.

The goal was even more devastating as it came immediately after the Whites spurned a glorious chance to grab a winner themselves. Kenny Tete had been felled by substitute Fabio Silva and Ivan Cavaleiro stood over a free-kick wide on the road, with the angle to whip an inviting ball for an assembled cast inside the Wolves penalty area. Instead, he found Rui Patricio’s gloves with a woeful delivery. A minute later and the ball was in the Fulham net. Referee Jon Moss deserves immense credit for playing advantage when Morgan Gibbs-White was clearly taken out in the middle of the field forty yards from goal, allowing Traore to surge down the right flank and fire into the roof of the net from an impossibly acute angle, badly wrongfooting Areola.

There was still time for Fulham, who had toiled manfully throughout without ever looking like breaking the deadlock, to fashion one last half chance when Josh Maja miscued a volley from ten yards out down into the turf and up into the grateful arms of Patricio with the game’s last kick. Fulham might only be three points behind Newcastle but they have played two games move than the Magpies and Steve Bruce’s side can put further distance between themselves and the relegation zone by beating Burnley on Sunday. Parker’s next two assignments, trips to Arsenal and Chelsea, would be tough under the best of circumstances – but you fancy Fulham need a miracle bigger than the one Roy Hodgson pulled off in 2008 now.

This scrappy and tense affair was not an alluring advert for the English top flight. Two sides badly out of form largely cancelled each other out and the first half was a turgid watch, coming to life only with its last gasp when Wolves were ludicrously denied the opening goal by the video assistant referee. With the half’s only serious moment of quality, Daniel Podence produced a fine cross that Willian Jose emphatically headed past Areola – only for the subsequent analysis to suggest that the winger’s arm might have been marginally offside. It wasn’t the clear and obvious howler that the technology has been brought in to correct – and it was a mighty let off for Fulham.

Parker’s side, which included Terence Kongolo making a first league start for seventeen months after Tosin Adarabioyo harshly paid the penalty for his mistake in the Midlands on Easter Sunday, had huffed and puffed without creating a great deal. Antonee Robinson represented Fulham’s most potent threat with his raids down the left often prompted by Joachim Andersen’s exquisite crossfield passes. The American’s two best crosses provided the hosts’ only serious openings – Ruben Loftus-Cheek criminally failing to find the target with his head from ten yards and Aleksandar Mitrovic looping a header just wide from further out just before the break.

Fulham began with more adventure after the interval, but Mitrovic was frequently left completely isolated up against Wolves’ well-drilled three centre backs. Mario Lemina almost teased an opening for Kenny Tete at the back post before Patricio snaffled a tame Mitrovic header at his near post and, although Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa added both industry and intensity from the bench, the Whites lacked a telling final ball to match their desire as they pressed for an opener. The clearer chances probably came at the other end, with Romain Saïss wasting a free-kick just outside the area and Leander Dendoncker spurning two headed chances.

Parker’s side roused themselves in a lively closing spell where they raised the tempo. Maja saw his close-range header diverted wide by Ruben Neves after Anguissa had created half a yard of space outside the box and an improvised effort from his right foot by Robinson briefly had Patricio scurrying across his goalline. In the story of Fulham’s infuriating campaign, the home side were punished for their failure to make the most of their best spell of the game in its dying embers. Teenage striker Fabio Silva, who has shown flickers of his dazzling potential so far since his summer move from Porto, injected energy into Wolves’ late break when he sent Traore blazing down the right with a lovely pass after Gibbs-White had been cynically felled and the rapid Spaniard broke Fulham’s hearts with a powerful drive that took Areola by surprise and ended his own fifteenth month Premier League scoring drought.

Parker has arguably already pulled off a heroic feet in making a Fulham side who looked nothing more than top flight cannon fodder in the early weeks of the season competitive in this division – but the Whites have lacked the ruthlessness to be able to capitalise on their improved run of form around the turn of the year. It seems as though salvation will be beyond them unless this crazy season serves up the most unscriptable of finales.

FULHAM (3-4-3): Areola; Aina (Cavaleiro 84), Andersen, Kongolo; Tete, Robinson, Reed (Maja 73), Lemina; Loftus-Cheek (Anguissa 63), Decordova-Reid, Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Fabri, Hector, Ream, Adarabioyo, Bryan, Onomah.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS (4-2-3-1): Patricio; Semedo, Aït-Nouri, Coady, Saïss; Dendoncker, Neves; Neto (Moutinho 33), Traore, Podence (Gibbs-White 74); Jose (Silva 78). Subs (not used): Ruddy, Hoever, Kilman, Richards, Otasowie, Vintinha.

GOAL: Traore (90+3).

REFEREE: Jon Moss (West Yorkshire).

VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: David Coote (Nottinghamshire).

Fulham squander survival lifeline at Villa

This may well be Fulham’s most damaging defeat of the season. Tantalisingly, a spot above the relegation zone appeared in their grasp after Aleksandar Mitrovic punished a horrific mistake by Tyrone Mings to put them in front at Villa Park, but Scott Parker’s side couldn’t hold on. Instead, they crumbled. Two goals in space of three minutes from substitute Trezeguet turned the contest on its head before Ollie Watkins completed the comeback from close range.

The faces at full-time said it all. Dean Smith’s Villa charges were delirious – but Fulham looked shellshocked. They had been comfortably in control when Mitrovic brought his outstanding international form back to the domestic arena and, although there was more than an element of fortune about the way the ball fell for him, the visitors thoroughly merited their second half lead. The Whites had been the more adventurous of the two sides – and it took Villa nearly seventy minutes to muster a shot on target.

That’s what made the turnaround so surprising. Villa had flickered with Bertrand Traore briefly coming to the fore, but the away defence had kept Watkins – a scorer on his international debut with England – particularly quiet and looked on course for a crucial away win. It was Mings himself who sparked the Villa comeback, galloping down the left flank and picking out Trezeguet on the edge of the box with a low cross that the Egyptian guided into the bottom corner with real precision.

Just three minutes later, Villa were in front. An error from the usually reliable Tosin Adarabioyo saw Keinan Davis seize possession from the Fulham centre back in a dangerous position. The forward surged down the right flank and produced a deep cross that Trezeguet gleefully forced home at the far post. Adarabioyo booted the loose ball away in anger – knowing just how cruical that lapse might prove in such a tight relegation battle – and Fulham heads dropped.

Any hopes of a rousing revival were extinguished when Watkins tapped home a third from close range after Traore had tricked his way past Ola Aina and you sense it will take all of Parker’s powers as a motivator now to lift his troops for the run-in. Staying up is certainly not beyond Fulham, but they keep making it even more difficult.

The away side had begun brightly, with Mitrovic underlining his rediscovered confidence by testing Emiliano Martinez with a low snapshot from just outside the box. Bobby Decordova-Reid might have done better than direct a header wide of goal from an excellent Kenny Tete cross, before Mitrovic’s vociferous appeals for a penalty when he was pulled down by Mings were waved away. The Serbian was certainly Fulham’s talisman, seeing a left-footed effort palmed aside by Martinez after a surging run from Ruben Loftus-Cheek threatened to open Villa up.

The hosts gradually got into the contest but found Fulham’s well-drilled midfield particularly difficult to play through. Watkins was anonymous, save for a heavy touch in the second minute that prevented him from converting a devilish cross from Matty Cash. Though they enjoyed more possession as the half went on, it would have been a tragedy if Villa had gone in front at the break. That nearly happened when Andy Madley penalised Mario Lemina’s challenge on Watkins on the stroke of half-time but, after consultation with the pitchside monitor, the referee overturned his decision, deciding that the Fulham midfielder had made contact with the ball.

Fulham’s plans for the second half were disrupted within two minutes of the restart when Ademola Lookman was forced off injured after clashing with Cash. Ivan Cavaleiro came on and the second period followed a similar pattern. Fulham were purposeful in possession – but you could sense the tension was playing a key role too. They were only too grateful to profit from a terrible mistake by Mings, who underhit a routine backpass to Martinez badly, allowing Mitrovic to nip in, round the goalkeeper and stroke his first Premier League goal in some 22 matches into the empty net.

The visitors initially showed little sign of sitting on their lead, with Harrison Reed bending an effort wide from just outside the box after Villa had been caught trying to play out from the back. But Villa began to throw numbers forward – and after Smith sent on Davis to join Watkins in attack – the Fulham rearguard dropped decidedly deeper. The decisive Villa goals came in a rush, with Trezeguet’s well-struck first swiftly followed by a poacher’s finish at the far post. The substitute’s first goals of the campaign felt like a hammer blow for Fulham, who are now three points behind Newcastle in seventeenth place.

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Martinez; Cash, Targett, Mings, Konsa; Douglas Luiz (Ramsey 74), Sanson (Davis 67); Traore, El-Ghazi, McGinn; Watkins. Subs (not used): Heaton, Engles, Taylor, Nakamba, Barkley, El-Mohamady.

BOOKED: Douglas Luiz.

GOALS: Trezeguet (78, 81), Watkins (87).

FULHAM (4-2-3-1): Areola; Tete, Aina, Adarabioyo, Andersen; Lemina (Onomah 83), Reed; Lookman (Cavaleiro 47), Decordova-Reid, Loftus-Cheek (Maja 83); Mitrovic. Subs (not used): Fabri, Ream, Kongolo, Robinson, Bryan, Anguissa.

BOOKED: Andersen, Decordova-Reid.

GOAL: Mitrovic (61).

REFEREE: Andy Madley (West Yorkshire).

VIDEO ASSISTANT REFEREE: Stuart Attwell (Warwickshire).

Fulham offer Biereth and Bowat professional contracts

Fulham have rewarded Mika Biereth and Ibane Bowat professional contracts after their outstanding performances for the club’s under 18 side this season, according to the Athletic this morning.

Biereth has scored thirteen goals in sixteen league appearances for Fulham’s under 18s this term, notching hat-tricks against Aston Villa and Tottenham. The Motspur Park coaching staff are particularly pleased with his development and the forward has also made four appearances at under-23 level this season. The teenager, who moved to Craven Cottage in the summer of 2019, has attracted interest from Brighton and Hove Albion but Fulham are confident he will put pen to paper on a professional deal.

Bowat, a composed ball-playing centre back who has captained Steve Wigley’s side this year, has made twelve league appearances for the under-18s this season and earned a call-up to Scotland’s under 19 side earlier this year. He scored in this weekend’s 5-0 win over Norwich City. Arsenal, West Ham and Everton have all expressed in signing Bowat – as reported earlier this month – but Fulham have not received an official approach and believe they are in pole position to keep hold of one of their prized assets.

Bowie brace powers Fulham U18s to top of the table

Photo: Thomas Lang

A brace from Kieron Bowie helped Fulham’s under 18s move back to the top of the Premier League south table as Steve Wigley’s side thrashed Norwich City 5-0 at the LSE this morning.

The young Whites recorded their third consecutive league win and Scottish forward Bowie, a summer arrival from Raith Rovers, was in fine form from the outset. Fulham could have gone in front from one of their very first attacks but Ollie O’Neil’s drive was well blocked by a Canaries defender.

Bowie grabbed his first goal on eight minutes when a swift break saw Mika Biereth drive down the right flank and his low cross was clinically converted by Bowie. Lewis Shipley made a terrific save to deny Fulham a second – keeping out a goalbound low drive from the increasingly influential O’Neil.

Norwich were operating mainly on the counter-attack but created a couple of opportunities to trouble the Fulham backline. Abu Kamara tested Alex Borto’s reflexes with a free-kick from a fair way out before a brilliant through ball from Saxon Earley sent Ken Aboh clear in the box. The forward got around Borto but was denied by a brilliant saving tackle from Ibane Bowat. Borto had to be alert to deny Kamara, who had tricked his way past a couple of Fulham defenders, as the visitors enjoyed their best spell of the contest.

Jay Stansfield was disappointed not to increase Fulham’s lead just before half-time, the teenager striker shooting narrowly over the crossbar after being teed up on the half-volley by some excellent approach play from O’Neil. Norwich came out reinvigorated after the break and Borto was forced into a smart save at his near post by Aboh.

That miss was to prove costly as Fulham went down the other end and doubled their lead. Bowie bagged his second of the match with a cool finish from just inside the penalty area and, just two minutes later, the hosts had another. Stansfield continued his fine form since returning from ankle surgery by emphatically heading home Bowat’s cross to effectively settled the contest.

To their great credit, Norwich weren’t about to lie down. They had a succession of shots blocked inside the Fulham box before Brad Hills drove wide. Fulham might have had a fourth following a serious goalmouth scramble with Idris Odutayo and Bowie both seeing their efforts cleared off the line. Bowie spurned a glorious opportunity to grab his hat-trick when he sent a free header over the bar with ten minutes to play.

Fulham were continuing to look dangerous with every attack and eventually the frenetic pace of the contest seemed to catch up with Norwich. Bowat added a fourth with a looping header that beat Reece Trueman from O’Neill’s excellent corner. The scoring wasn’t done there though – as substitute Olly Sanderson notching a fifth from close range in the third minute of stoppage time.

FULHAM U18s: Borto; D’Auria-Henry, Parkes, Bowat, Odutayo; Dibley-Dias (Lanquedoc 60), Harris (Araujo 80), O’Neill; Biereth (Sanderson 73), Stansfield, Bowie. Subs (not used): Antonsson Caton.

BOOKED: Parkes.

GOALS: Bowie (8, 56), Stansfield (58), Bowat (86), Sanderson (90+2).

NORWICH CITY U18s: Trueman, Jackson, Hills, Shipley, Okeowo, Duffy (Welch, 67), Brooke (Reindorf, 76), Matos, Kamara (Alidor-Hamilton, 61), Aboh.

BOOKED: Earley.