Article: You’ve Got To Pick A Taker Or Two

Image: Sky Sports

The penalty discussion at Fulham rages on, and likely will do until the next one is competently dispatched by a player wearing white (or yellow). Further fuel was added to this debate after supposed penalty kicker elect, Aleksandar Mitrović, saw the deciding effort saved by David Marshall in Serbia’s recent playoff shoot-out with Scotland. Mitrovic’s confidence in his own ability from 12 yards could well be at an all-time low as The Cottagers gear up for a return to Premier League duties this weekend against Everton.

Having missed at Bramall Lane in high-stakes circumstances earlier this season, and then deciding his countries fate with regards to participation at next summer’s European Championships, Mitrovic’s status as the designated penalty taker is potentially under more consideration than ever. After the Ademola Lookman debacle at The London Stadium prior to this most recent international break, we are no closer to determining who the most reliable nominee will be. In a season where the number of penalties awarded are trending at an unprecedented high, thanks in no small part to VAR, it looks to be more important than ever to have someone with both the technique and the nerve to do the job from 12-yards.

Statistics suggest you should score three out every four penalties awarded. Obviously it’s not as cut and dry as that. Many players have far more favourable records, while others aren’t entrusted to test the numbers if they miss one or two, soon after taking on spot-kick duties.

Much has been said in the past week or so since Fulham dropped a point in spectacular circumstances against West Ham United about the success rate of current squad members, and with the transfer window closed until January, there is no opportunity to recruit a specialist at this moment in time. Even if the window was open, it would be questionable to sign a player purely for their penalty prowess if we already have adequate options in their position from open play. But this is not a new problem, and Fulham’s lack of success in these scenarios is now well documented. Since the ever-reliable Ross McCormack departed, Fulham are barely batting .500 from the spot.

The current players with the best records have been shown to be Bobby Decordova-Reid, Aboubakar Kamara and Ivan Cavaleiro. The problem is that none of those are automatic starters in this current Fulham team. Kamara has not been a regular in any of his seasons at the club, amassing just 23 starts since joining in 2017. Cavaleiro has been able to establish himself far more since arriving in the summer of 2019, but has recently lost his place in the starting XI to a chief rival for spot-kick duties. His form has suffered since football returned after the initial, national lockdown, and it is not expected that he will be the first name on the team sheet any time soon.

Decordova-Reid is currently enjoying a run in the side of sorts, having started the previous two league games and to good effect, scoring against West Bromwich Albion, before being the first to test Lukas Fabianski against The Hammers. But despite that, he was the first player substituted in the latter fixture, and was also absent from the field of play when the penalty before that was awarded against Sheffield United. With a 100% record at his previous clubs, the Jamaican international appears a valid option to take on the mantle of designated penalty taker. But his place in the side is not particularly secure.

Most Fulham fans would agree that the next position in need of an upgrade is the right-hand side of the attack. This is where the former Bristol City man is playing at present. If Fulham are able to strengthen in January, it could be at the expense of the versatile forward. Of course there is at least one example of a player in the top flight, who is the penalty taker on occasions in which he is on the field of play, even if he is more of a squad player these days.

Unflappable veteran, James Milner tends to take Liverpool’s spot kicks whenever he is in a position to do so, and cedes the responsibility to Mohamed Salah when he is not present on the pitch. Milner is a seasoned professional who has taken penalties in many situations. His experience and general demeanour make him a formidable proposition form 12 yards. Decordova-Reid’s record, while perfect (five from five), in reality, does not come close to rivalling the 28 of 32 from the 34 year-old League and European Cup winner. The other difference here of course, is the capability of the deputy. Salah has successfully dispatched 19 of the 22 penalties he has taken in his career. No one in Fulham’s squad can boast that level of consistency across such a number of attempts.

Perhaps someone has made their case on the training ground in the sessions since the last fixture. But if Decordova-Reid is to become the go-to man, then it is vital that Fulham have a worthy stand-in. Because having not completed the 90 minutes in any of his appearances this season, and arguably the least sure of his place amongst the current starters as the season progresses, there is every chance that Fulham will once again have the odds stacked in their favour to score, but without the man most capable of taking advantage of that probability on the pitch.