A brace from Michael Olakigbe ensured Fulham under 18s climbed to the top of the Premier U18 League Division 1 South with a comfortable win at Birmingham City this afternoon.
The England youth international continued his superb goalscoring start to the season by grabbing a match settling double after Jaylan Wildbore’s close-range finish had put the young Whites ahead. New under 18s coach Ali Melloul enjoyed a excellent start to his tenure after taking over from Steve Wigley, with the visitors dominating the opening stages of a very watchable encounter.
Fulham’s clearest chances initially came from set players with Wildbore and Harvey Araujo heading wide from corners. George Okkas then struck a post with a powerful free-kick before Wildbore prodded the away side in front. Alfie Brooks did brilliantly to deny Luke Harris after the striker had latched onto a floated cross from Devan Tanton, but Wildbore was on hand to sidefoot home from eight yards.
The Whites continued to play on the front foot, although their second goal owed much to a mix-up at the back. Brooks tried to play a short ball out of defence having received a backpass but Olakigbe, who had led the Fulham press, nipped in to seize possession and roll the simplest of finishes into an empty net. That strike effectively killed the contest – although Fulham were eager to add further goals in the second half.
Wildbore and Imani Lanquedoc spurned good chances to extend Fulham’s lead, with Brooks making a fine save from the latter, before Olakigbe took matters into his own hands to round off the scoring with a sensational strike. He collected a pass from Tyler Caton and spun sharply twenty five yards from goal before firing an unstoppable finish into the top corner. Fulham are now a point clear of Arsenal and Crystal Palace at the top of the table and return to league action when Chelsea visit Motspur Park on October 23rd.
The Welsh international returned to the starting line-up with devastating effect at St. Andrew’s in midweek – scoring one and making another as the Whites stormed back to the top of the table in style. Wilson told FFCTV that Marco Silva had left the players in no doubt that he was expecting a response after the disappointing defeat at Bloomfield Road and he felt Fulham delivered:
“The manager was stressing to us that we needed a reaction and I thought the reaction was top class. From the start, we were at it. We started well, got the goal and managed to get the second before half time. They had a couple of half chances but I felt we kept them quiet and dealt with their threat really well.
“It was a bit of a frustrating one to miss Blackpool. With the head injury that I had with Wales, I felt I could could have played. I felt fine but with the protocols in the game now, I had to follow a step-by-step guide for five days so I missed Blackpool but I was desperate to get back out there on Wednesday. Individually, I felt I had a good game and I thought collectively as a team we were solid and deserved the win.
Wilson admitted to be pleased with a strong start to his Fulham career – he has scored three goals and contributed four assists in five appearances – when he has been able to get on the pitch, with consistency proving difficult following suspension and injuries.
“I’m happy with my numbers so far. It’s a bit frustrating missing the Blackpool game with an injury and the red card that I picked up, which was completely my fault, so I haven’t played all the games that I would have liked. The games I have played I feel my performances have been good and we’re winning games.
He certainly won’t be underestimating the Royals, who pose a real threat in attack, and knows just how important picking up back-to-back wins is in such a demanding division.
“Every time I play Reading I always think they are going to be a good footballing team. I know a couple of their players and they have players who like to get on the ball, play passes, interchange positions. We know it is going to be a tough game. I think their goal record this year is one of the best in the league, especially in the last few games – I think they scored three pretty much every game they’ve played. We know what threat they are going to have, but we know we can cause them problems as well. We’ll watch the videos on them and come up with a plan that we think will win the game.
“You’re never going to go through the Championship unbeaten. The league’s too hard – you’re playing Saturday, Tuesday most weeks. It is about how you react to those defeats. We reacted well on Wednesday and we’ll be making sure that we can put another few wins together to keep on top of the league.”
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.
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.”