If there was a perception that Fuham might prove a soft touch on their travels following the weekend defeat at Blackpool, then Marco Silva’s side dispelled it last night at St. Andrew’s. The manner of the victory was instructive. Fulham were far from in full control. Birmingham battled, slung in a succession of crosses and at times looked to be dominating the midfield battle but Lee Bowyer’s side were ultimately sunk by Fulham’s ruthlessness in front of goal.
Silva said afterwards that Harry Wilson was the first player he approached the board about after agreeing to take over from Scott Parker in the summer. It is obvious to see why. Wilson has some pedigree at this level – and totally transforms Fulham as an attacking proposition when he is in the side. A willing and intelligent runner, whose darts inside are likely to deliver plenty of goals, he can also whip in a dangerous corner – something the Whites have sorely missed in recent years. His signature move, cutting in from the right flank onto his stronger right foot, seems far less predictable that Anthony Knockaert’s and, in this irrepressible form, the Welshman appears unstoppable.
A word too on Aleksandar Mitrovic would be appopriate as the Serbian celebrates his 27th birthday. Silva insisted that Mitrovic would take Fulham’s next penalty after missing from the spot against Stoke City – and he was true to his word. Mitrovic looked much more decisive in dispatching this one into the bottom corner and put a far more convincing gloss on the scoreline as the clock ticked down. Fulham’s fourth goal owed everything to his desire to prove there’s much more to his game than merely poaching goals. He stripped Marc Roberts of possession on the halfway line, sauntered down the left flank and slipped in Jean-Michael Seri with a beautifully disguised reverse ball. When the return pass landed at his feet, you knew what was going to happen. His exclusion from a struggling side last season seems even more perplexing with each week.
Silva’s rotation probably came a few days too late but there were something interesting things to note. On his hundredth Fulham appearance, Joe Bryan gave a masterclass in how to fulfil the role of a modern full back. He was eager to get forward, as ever, but remained responsible, wary of Birmingham’s own attacking threat, at the same time. Tosin Adarabioyo was outstanding at the heart of the visiting defence – heading away countless aerial balls as the Blues took a more direct route to goal, particularly in the first half.
The clearest change came in the shape of Fulham’s midfield. The loss of Josh Onomah to injury, and Fabio Carvalho’s continued absence with a toe complaint, meant Silva would have to select different personnel in the engine room but he went with a slightly different shape to what we have seen before as well. Seri seemed to sit a deeper than in previous outings, with Harrison Reed playing slighly further forward alongside Nathaniel Chalobah, who was outstanding on his Fulham debut. The trio outnumbered Birmingham in the centre of the park and, whilst they certainly didn’t have it all their own way in what was a pretty even contest, they definitely made Fulham tougher to play through. Chalobah and Seri had notable roles in three of Fulham’s goals on a very encouraging night.
The set up of Fulham’s three central midfielders also had a knock on effect for the forward line as well. Wilson and Bobby Decordova-Reid were stationed very wide and pushed forward to join Mitrovic in attack – in an attempt to stretch Birmingham’s back three, which worked wonderfully well. It was a clear plan for this fixture, with Lee Bowyer always keen to push his wing-backs on, and the visitors got great joy down the flanks. This was one of those games where the preparation for the opposition really paid off.
The scoreline may ultimately have flattered Fulham, as Birmingham were punished for defensive lapses whilst Paulo Gazzaniga made a number of second half saves, but this was precisely the response to the Blackpool abberation that Silva would have sought. Bowyer is building a combative and competitive side and I don’t think many teams will score four at St. Andrew’s this season.
The Fulham head coach was delighted with the centre forward’s complete performance, stressing that there was much more to Mitrovic’s game than his regular goalscoring exploits. The Serbian centre forward, who celebrates his 27th birthday today, moved past the likes of Allan Clarke and Barry Hayles in the all-time Fulham scoring list with his brace at St. Andrew’s.
Silva told his post-match press conference:
“I know Mitrovic and he’s a very important player for us, not just because he scores goals. The way we use him to link our game and to break the pressure and find our midfielders around him.
He scored from the penalty in the first half and the second goal he scored was really important after 83 minutes, seeing him press the central defender to win the ball. I was really pleased to see that, showing to me that he’s really involved in the team, not just scoring goals but pressing the opposition and all his work without the ball.”
Silva’s side were deservedly beaten by newly-promoted Blackpool at the weekend and the Portuguese head coach was pleased that his side put that setback behind them so emphatically at St. Andrew’s. Denis Odoi’s early header was followed by a brace from Aleksandar Mitrovic and a fine strike by Harry Wilson as in-form Birmingham were swept aside.
Silva told FFCTV after the final whistle:
“It was really important to bounce back and get back on the right track again. It was a big response from our players after the result against Blackpool. We expressed ourselves on the pitch and that is something that I want to see. The commitment and the attitude. We knew we had to be really brave to come here and match them. We controlled well these moments and we controlled Chong well. We did really well.
Fulham made four changes following the defeat at Blackpool and Silva was impressed with the performance of the players he brought in.
“We were solid and scoring four goals away from home was a really good sign for us. Joe is more than ready to play if I decide. It is a good battle between him and Robinson. Chalobah is not in his best physical condition, but I know him really well. He will add something really important because he has the character and the personality as well to manage the game, to play forward.
Harry Wilson is not new for us. Unfortunately, he hasn’t played many games in a row. I hope he can play week in, week out to be really important for us. He’s a top class player in my opinion. He’s a happy player, he’s happy to be at Fulham Football Club and that’s really important to me.
After a bad result, we have to show the character and the personality to show something. Playing away against Birmingham is really tough, but we did it. We will analyse this game tomorrow, but we got the three points. We have a few days to prepare for another tough game against Reading.”
The England international, who joined from Watford on a free transfer at the end of the summer transfer window, slotted in seamlessly alongside Jean Michael Seri and Harrison Reed in a rejigged central midfield and put in a composed display as Marco Silva’s side bounced back from the weekend disappointment at Blackpool. Chalobah told FFCTV:
“It wasn’t bad. I’m just buzzing we got the win, especially after the last game. It’s good to put things right and get the result today. I felt okay. It’s probably my first game in a long time. I’ve got a good group of boys around me who have helped me settle in quite quickly. The performance we did out there today was pretty impressive because Birmingham aren’t an easy side.”
Chalobah was modest about his role in Fulham’s crucial third goal – when his glorious through ball released Harry Wilson to put the game beyond Lee Bowyer’s men.
“I try to go forward as much as I can. It depends on the point in the game at times – the game was quite open with the runs we were making and they were going man-to-man, so the space was always going to be in behind. I’ve seen clips of Harry before and I know he likes making that run inside. The moment Reidy had it, I already saw the image in my head and I was screaming at him just to give me the ball so I could play him and luckily he gave it to me at the right time.
The central midfielder insisted Fulham’s strength in depth in the engine room will be a huge asset going forward and ensures that nobody can afford to rest on their laurels.
“It’s always important to have competition because people will always relax and think they are going to play. The competition is there, but we also stick together and driving each other every week so we can go out there and give performances like that. The best example of that was Alfie Mawson coming on and making a last ditch header right at the end. We’ve got to be together and, at the minute, we’re showing that.”
Marco Silva wanted a reaction after Fulham’s meek capitulation at Blackpool on Saturday – and his side delivered in the Midlands this evening. St. Andrew’s might not be as intimidating as usual, owing to botched stadium repairs and ownership issues, but Lee Bowyer’s side are certainly no pushover on the pitch. Blues sat just outside the play-off places at kick off and asked plenty of questions in an even first half, but Fulham proved clinical on the counter attack and ruthlessly took their chances to head back to the top of the Championship.
Silva’s belated embrace of one of the division’s strongest squads saw four changes from the Bloomfield Road debacle. Joe Bryan made his first start of the season at left back, whilst Nathaniel Chalobah and Harrison Reed lined up alongside Jean-Michael Seri to make a central midfield three with Harry Wilson returning on his right wing after overcoming the dizzy spells that prompted an early end to his international duty. The Welsh winger has been a revelation since signing from Liverpool in the summer and might have scored twice before half-time. He made amends by whipping in a devilish corner that Denis Odoi glanced gloriously into the far corner after rising majestically at the near post, with Chalobah blocking off Jeremie Bela effectively.
Chalobah had an excellent debut in the heart of the midfield, driving forward with purpose when space opened up in front of him. He produced an outrageous turn to accelerate into space inside the Birmingham box just before the break, with Harlee Dean reduced to hauling the England international down in desperation. Aleksandar Mitrovic made no mistake from the spot, drilling his penalty low into the bottom corner to double Fulham’s lead. That might have been harsh on the home side, who attacked with energy, but struggled to create clear chances. Tosin Adarabioyo had a terrific first half, making twelve clearances on his own. Bela extended Gazzaniga with a 25-yard free kick and, after the goalkeeper had galloped outside of his area, Lukas Jutkiewicz fired wide.
But Fulham might have been further in front after Wilson spurned a couple of good chances before the break and then was denied a free-kick on the edge of the box after clearly being clipped by Marc Roberts having latched onto a terrific kick from Gazzaniga. The Welshman, such a pivotal figure in Silva’s side in the early weeks of his reign, was denied by Matija Sarkic after a one-two with Joe Bryan and the goalkeeper easily gathered an effort off his weaker foot after Reed’s rampaging right down the right allowed Mitrovic to tee him up.
Wilson did get his goal ten minutes after the interval and it came courtesy of the kind of classical counter-attack that this side is set up for. Chalobah threaded a glorious pass through the retreating Birmingham defence to release Wilson down the right and, having run from the halfway line, the winger slotted an assured finish past Sarkic. Birmingham didn’t fold and responded with their best spell of the game – Gazzaniga saving smartly from Jutkiewicz and substitute Troy Deeney in quick succession before Harlee Dean headed over from a corner.
There was a worrying moment midway through the second period when Reed limped off after going down in the Fulham penalty area and his exit temporarily loosened the visitors’ foothold in midfield. Gazzaniga was called upon to claw away a trademark Jutkiewicz header and then used his feet to deny Deeney a first goal for his boyhood club after a free-kick dropped invitingly for the former Watford forward five yards out.
Wilson was withdrawn – presumably with Fulham’s hectic autumn schedule in mind – but Mitrovic fashioned his second of the evening to emphasise just how dangerous the Whites can be in attack. The Serbian striker stole possession from Roberts on the halfway line and worked a one-two at pace with Seri before burying sixth of the season with a modicum of fuss. Fulham’s clean sheet was ruined when Deeney was brought down by a combination of Odoi and Domingos Quina and the veteran fired in emphatically from the spot. Denney was denied a second in stoppage time when Gazzaniga gathered his attempted chip, before Gary Gardner rattled the crossbar with a header, but the gulf in class had been clearly established long ago.
Perhaps the silver lining from Saturday’s tame capitulation at Blackpool is that should put a stop to the smug idea that Marco Silva’s side might walk the Championship. Fulham’s awesome August was all well and good, but nothing is won in the first four weeks of the campaign. Responding to adversity is how all the best teams display their credentials and the Whites face an early test of their stomach for the fight at St. Andrew’s tomorrow night.
Lee Bowyer has done a magnificent job in fashioning a feisty outfit from a meagre outlay over the summer and navigating the choppy waters of Birmingham’s messy off-field affairs. Plenty of pundits were surprised when Bowyer swapped Charlton Athletic for another of his former sides last March, but far from resting on his laurels after keeping the Blues up, he has taken his charges to just outside the top six having won three of their first six games.
Bowyer has spoken of how pleased he is that the team he manages can demonstrate the battling qualities that typified his own playing career and believes a proposed new strike pairing of Lukas Jutkiewicz and Troy Deeney would ‘beat up’ plenty of defences. The way in which Fulham succumbed at Bloomfield Road on Saturday might indicate that Silva’s side could have something of a soft underbelly: they were distinctly below par from the outside, susceptible to Neil Critchley’s high press and the Whites were never able to put together the kind of high octane and inventive display that had characterised their start to the Championship. After the final whistle on Saturday, you could just imagine Bowyer licking his lips in anticipation. He has the experience of nullifying Fulham twice in the Championship – he secured two draws with Charlton – and will no doubt have a plan to do it again.
Birmingham’s excellent start to the campaign has been built on a strong backline as eye-catching as Tahith Chong’s loan spell from Manchester United has been. Blues have conceded just three goals in six games, with goalkeeper Matija Sarkic – brought in on loan from Wolves in the summer – keeping four clean sheets and a back three of Marc Roberts, former Brentford centre half Harlee Dean and Kristian Pedersen proving particularly miserly. The form of Ryan Woods and Ivan Sunjic in central midfield has been impressive whilst the artistry of Chong, allied to the adventure of wingbacks Maxime Collin and Jeremie Bela has provided plenty of service in the final third.
Any post-mortem of Fulham’s failings at the seaside has to begin with Silva’s disastrous decision to not trust the strength of his squad with several first-teamers reporting back from international duty before the Blackpool fixture. Both Antonee Robinson and Tim Ream appeared laboured from the outset, whilst the Whites noticeably lacked bite in midfield until Harrison Reed belatedly arrived as a substitute. The meekness of Fulham’s performance would justifiability cause the Portuguese head coach to consider who could perk things up. Nathaniel Chalobah could be a candidate for a debut if Silva decides to spilt up his central midfield partnership of Josh Onomah and Jean-Michael Seri. The return of Harry Wilson from the dizzy spells that saw him miss the trip to Blackpool should inject some energy into the final third but Fabio Carvalho’s foot problem could keep him sidelined until at least the weekend.
Fulham badly missed that pair in Blackpool when their only prolonged spell of pressure arrived once Rodrigo Muniz enlivened a toothless attack in the final ten minutes. Ivan Cavaleiro somehow stayed on the field for ninety minutes and the axing of Neeskens Kebano appeared somewhat harsh. Wilson’s availability should see the Welsh winger slot back into the right wing role from where he has prompted many of Fulham’s attacks since his arrival at Craven Cottage earlier this summer and, in the continued absence of Carvalho, it might be worth playing Bobby Decordova-Reid from behind the main striker – from where his intelligent movement could pose a problem for even the most well-drilled of defences. Domingos Quina’s debut was something of a disappointment but it would be foolish to right off a player after just 67 minutes.
Silva has so far kept faith in Paulo Gazzaniga in goal – a decision that showed scant regard for just how exceptionally Marek Rodak had demonstrated his suitability for this level during Fulham’s last promotion season, as well as ignoring the Argentine’s culpability for the goals a new-look side had conceded in the early weeks of the campaign. The former Tottenham custodian should come under more intense scrutiny after allowing Josh Bowler to score at his near post last weekend, but he seems set to continue for the moment. Gazzaniga was far from the only man responsible for the calamitous concession of that winner and, as Ream suggested on social media on Saturday, everyone needs to take responsibility in ensuring that the Tangerine triumph was merely a blip rather than a worrying sign of what’s to come.
A second victory of the season at St. Andrew’s would go some way to restoring the confidence that had been evident in Fulham’s flowing football last month – but it is far from a sure thing. The old footballing cliche of quietening the crowd might not be as appropriate given Birmingham’s continuing stadium difficulties, but Silva’s side will still need to earn the right to dictate proceedings. Both style and steel shall be required.