It’s not an easy task transitioning from a Championship club to a Premier League outfit. Whilst it’s quite inviting to buy into the idea of a club developing a philosophy and sticking with it religiously when they head into the big time, in reality it should be a case of being prepared to evolve. Being able to both acknowledge and cope with the likeliness that your players might not be good enough to execute that same style against better teams.
Versatility is key to survival and whilst every club in the bottom half of the table will have flaws in their squad, it’s our strength in depth in midfield that will be the decisive factor if we are to survive. Versatility doesn’t have to mean chopping and changing from a back three to a back four every week and completely disregarding the foundations that the said style is built around. It’s more to do with the personnel that enable you to tweak things to suit each game.
Considering we are a club destined for relegation (according to the neutral), the options we have in our midfield area far outweigh the expectations of a club in our position. We are competing in a mini league within the Premier League. Forget about what Liverpool and Manchester City are doing, disregard our inferiority in comparison to the likes of Aston Villa and Wolves. The key is that we have five players to select in our midfield who, as a collective, are superior to the clubs around us. All different, offering us a wide range of options as to how we approach each opposition, and it’s that ability to mix it up that should give us an advantage when Plan A isn’t working.
If we rewind to 2018/19, Calum Chambers won our Player of the Season award, mainly playing as a makeshift midfielder. For all of his efforts and commendable attitude in a Fulham shirt, he was limited in the role as he was a centre back by trade, a sheer contrast to this season where we have 5 talented midfielders, including two who are quite comfortably top half Premier League standard.
Tactically we have seen Scott Parker change the intensity of our play in recent weeks. We press as a team when out of possession and take more risks when we do have the ball. It’s early days with this new style and we need to see more chances created in the final third but so far, we have seen a drop in possession yet an upturn in our foothold on the game. That’s because we don’t go sideways and back with 5-yard safe passes for ninety minutes. It was so limited as a game plan before and was never going to unlock the door of Premier League defences. Now we make better use of the tools available to us and get players passing through the lines, making riskier passes and giving the likes of Anguissa and Lookman the license to take on players and beat the press. As a result, our counter attacks have significantly improved.
It’s feels like no coincidence that we only took 1 point from 18 when Harrison Reed and Mario Lemina were both suffering from injuries at the start of the season. During this time our captain was used as the holding midfielder, a role he was assured in but also limited his influence on the game. Last season ended quite similarly for TC, with Josh Onomah becoming the dynamic advanced player and closest to Mitrović in attack. This worked in the Championship because Onomah had the physical attributes to get in behind most midfields but his decision making and overall quality is not quite ready for the Premier League, which proved a problem in those early games as he became anonymous. Moving Cairney back into the number 10 role has worked a treat and he seems to have a new lease of life. Having competent players behind him gives Tom the freedom of drifting across the pitch in between the opposition’s midfield and defence, as he’s able to find little pockets of space to make things happen.
One particular advantage of this comes down the left-hand side where Robinson, Lookman and Cairney form triangles in the final third, outnumbering the opponents right hand side, turning it into a 3-on-2 situation. This means that, at the very least, we should always get a cross in as both Robinson and Cairney are left footed. Failing that, it also makes it harder for those 2 defenders to pick up Lookman, which creates its own problem for our opponents. More often than not It worked a treat against West Ham and the only criticism has to be the lack of end product, which in time should improve.
Against the Hammers, Reed offered a different type of holding midfield role to the one Lemina played in the win over West Brom. Harrison is disciplined and reads the game very well, providing a shield for the back four and protects us against the counter attack if we do commit players forward. It’ll certainly be a case of horses for courses as against The Baggies, Lemina’s aggressive nature and willingness to drift out of the holding midfield role, whilst riskier, also keeps the opposition penned into their half and keeps us on the front foot. Both are very good options to have but the opposition will determine who’s the better option, and their performances in the last two games are a good example of when they will both be needed. More importantly, they are playing the same role Chambers played two years ago but are both significantly better on the ball, which means we start attacks quicker and don’t lose possession carelessly through limitations in our passing range, something that was the downside of having a centre back in that position last time around.
We’ve not even got on to mentioning the quality of André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, who has been fantastic so far this season and has no doubt won over a lot of fans who were sceptical given how poor he was in our previous relegation. But whilst most clubs who win the playoffs will have to settle for the honest, hard-working pros who have their limitations, Zambo is a top-class player who has an aura about him when he takes to the pitch and he effortlessly controls the game in a similar way to how the Belgian Dembele used to.
The danger with Anguissa is that we don’t want him to become complacent. When he’s on form, he’s unplayable, but there have been games where he’s looked a bit sluggish and Parker needs to guard against that happening. Maybe this is where Ruben Loftus-Cheek comes in? In an ideal world, you would fit both players into that midfield, but we saw in those early games that it didn’t really work as a trio with TC, Zambo and RLC. So it’s probably a case of playing 2 of the 3 at one time with Reed/Lemina competing for the defensive-minded role. Competition is healthy and we’ve seen how much Cairney has upped his game this season as his place is genuinely under threat. This is probably the first time that has happened since he joined the club. Loftus-Cheek has all the attributes to be an ideal impact sub and if we can get a big 65 mins out of either TC or Anguissa against Everton, Loftus-Cheek could have a big role to play at the weekend.
It seems ridiculous that the playoff winners have created a situation where Ruben Loftus-Cheek isn’t walking into our starting eleven and regardless of how professional he is, an impact sub is certainly not what he signed up for when making the loan switch to Craven Cottage. So it surely won’t be long before his quality opens up a path into the starting line-up and between the five of them, I think we are spoilt for choice.
I’m not big on stats but will finish with one that I find quite interesting. It’s often defenders who have the most touches of the ball because teams play out from the back and to retain possession, it’s easier to pass across the defence where there’s more space. In the Premier League so far this season, that theory is backed up, with 12 of the top 20 players for most touches being defenders. Cairney and Anguissa make up 2 of the 8 midfielders in that top 20, which highlights our dominance in that area of the pitch. Of course you won’t survive just by having a good midfield, you need it to all come together as a team. We are starting to see signs of that with a settled defence, but any team can organise themselves and any team can train their players to be good at the basics. But to have genuine quality throughout your midfield is a priceless asset and it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the quality we have even if we go on to lose our next four games, which all come against very good teams.