Article: The Changing Place of Tom Cairney

Image: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty

12 goals, 10 assists. The only player to manage double figures in both metrics in the 2016/17 Championship season. There has long been a debate over the best way to utilise our captain, one that Scott Parker must have had with his staff, and probably internally when he took the job in the midst of our last, and ultimately, doomed Premier League campaign...

It appeared initially that Parker would restore Tom Cairney to his familiar, and seemingly most impactful, advanced playmaker role, or the traditional No.10, after he had been banished to the right hand side of Fulham’s midfield, if not the bench, by Claudio Ranieri. 

The result was a Premier League goal against Everton, arriving into the opposition box in a manner not dissimilar to the goal that took us to the promise land. He continued in this role while the inevitable happened, and we made our return to the second tier, albeit with a slight upturn in performances and improved mood around the club.

At the start of the marathon 2019/20 season, Cairney was still frequenting the hole behind Aleksandar Mitrovic, and arguably to good effect. In the opening 10 league games, Cairney contributed five goals, and barely a week seemed to pass without him lining up a trademark curler from 25 yards, before witnessing the ball fly in to the top corner. It seemed Cairney was back to his goalscoring best. He also provided three assists across those games, further suggesting he was en route to matching the productivity he had shown under Slavisa Jokanovic. But then something happened. Something that meant Cairney only added a further three goals across the rest of the season, and did not add an assist to his tally at all. 

That something was Josh Onomah. Making his first start at the end of November, he is arguably more athletic, more mobile and dynamic, and took over the mantle as Parker’s preferred no.10. But Onomah wasn’t doing the same job Cairney had been fulfilling, only providing 3 goals and 3 assists across the regular season himself. Instead, he was initiating the press, and battling to win the ball back higher up the pitch. Something that had rarely, if ever, been a part of Cairney’s repertoire. Cairney was now playing deeper, which was most evident in the Playoff Final against Brentford. 

In his deeper role Cairney is responsible for starting attacks from his own half, and providing an option to return the ball to if an attack meets a barrier in the opposition half. He is now the reset button of the team. If it didn’t work, and we still have the ball, go back to TC. He is very good at recycling and retaining possession. Even in small pockets of space, and under pressure, he can find a way out, and escort the ball to safety. 

This deeper role has continued into this season, slotting in alongside the impressive Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, who provides the dynamism and combativeness to compliment Cairney’s clam. However, Onomah seems to have been displaced by the undeniable upgrade that is Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Another athletic, physically gifted, younger man.

But why has Cairney’s position and role been altered so drastically when he hasn’t demonstrated the defensive awareness to play a position such as this previously? I believe there are a few contributing factors. The first, is that in the last three seasons, Cairney has suffered at various points with injuries. The dynamism that existed previously isn’t as evident in 2020. We see flashes of it, but it’s not with regularity that Cairney waltzes past three opponents on dancing feet, manipulating the ball while effortlessly holding off opponents before injecting three strides of pace that allow him the space to make his next move. More commonly, he now stops, turns, and plays the simple pass, recycling possession in a manner that seems to please his manager. More on this later. 

The next contributor is Mitrovic. In Cairney’s most prolific season, Fulham played with pressing forwards in the form of Sone Aluko and Floyd Ayite, who were often complimented by an exciting Ryan Sessegnon or enthusiastic Neeskens Kebano. This was particularly the case when Chris Martin attempted to use Craven Cottage as a “train station”. The front line, then, did the pressing, leaving Cairney free to roam behind them and pick up the pieces. He could drift into space without attracting the attention of defenders, who were preoccupied with the energy in front of him. Those attackers were no where near as prolific as our talismanic Serb, but they provided the chaos to allow Cairney to flourish. With Mitrovic, who offers so much, but not the same level of intensity in the press, the no.10 now has a greater responsibility to defend in the opposition third. Cairney’s attributes, in addition to the physical problems he has faced do not make that viable now. He doesn’t appear to have a burst of pace that was once available, even if rarely used out of possession. 

The third, and perhaps most important factor in this change of role, is of course the manager who dictates it. Scott Parker has a defined way that he wants his team to play. He tells us this after every match. Whether we are immediately aware of what that way is, or agree that it is indeed the best way, is not important in this instance. He believes in it, and so he will impose it on his players. In order to carry out this preferred approach, Parker will feel he needs a player in his own image to do the job he would understandably value, after making a career out of it himself. Among those who rated Parker the player and just as much among those who didn’t, it’s unanimous that he loved a turn. And turn he did. Again, and again. Next time you watch Tom Cairney, see if there’s anything familiar about what he does in his new position. Could it be that Parker, is moulding his captain into a modern day version of himself? Sure there isn’t the same tackling intensity, but it is worth noting that under Jokanovic, Cairney attempted 75 and 62 tackles in The Championship. Under Parker last season, that number was 86, despite playing as a no.10 for the first four months.

It makes sense that Parker would want his captain to embody his own philosophy, and where else is a retired player going to generate their philosophy from, if not from their own career? Scott Parker was not known for delicate looking finishes into the top bin. He was a metronome around which his teams were built. The constant, always available for a pass, and consistent in his work to retain possession for his team. Alongside a force like Anguissa, Cairney doesn’t need to be the ball winner his manager once was, but his technical ability does make him a more natural candidate to receive the ball from the defence and begin the progress into opposition territory via passes. The team Parker arrived to as a player, when he joined Fulham had not long lost Danny Murphy and more recently Moussa Dembele. He would have been aware of the limitations of his new team mates in comparison to those they had replaced. Now, in Anguissa, he could feel he has his Dembele, and in Cairney, he may be looking for his Murphy. Another player who started his career as technical attacking midfielder, before dropping back into a more disciplined role, initially alongside Dickson ‘The Destroyer’ Etuhu. 

The modern game has developed in a way that means the traditional 10 is less spotted. James Rodriguez starts from a wide position for Everton. Arsenal, once the home of the technical 10, don’t operate with one. The position is more suited to a physically imposing, athletic individual, than a technically gifted player full of finesse. Gone are the days of Mesut Ozil, Christian Eriksen and Juan Mata. At least for the time being. Cairney’s change is one born out of necessity and circumstance. Simply put, following injuries and an advancing age, it’s more suitable for him to drop back, than adapt to push forward while we await the resurrection of the old school CAM. In the meantime, expect less worldies, less assists, and more turns.