After a performance that boosted the side last week in the 3-2 Southampton win, I expected a similar performance against Chelsea; not necessarily a victory, but more so a solid performance. I expected us to line up similar to the 4-2-3-1, but I was genuinely hoping for the return of the 4-4-2 that put Cairney up front with Mitro. Ranieri opted for the 4-2-3-1, and right away it was clear Mitro was going to be isolated. With Schürrle out, Sessegnon took the right-hand side, with Cairney just behind Mitro.
Starting off well from the get-go when Christie had an early shot on target, then forcing Chelsea to make bad passes, it was early – but it was good. Then, the lack of awareness and communication between Odoi and Seri, it felt like the Man City match again. Odoi passes square to Seri, who is unaware of three Chelsea players closing him down, most importantly N’Golo Kante who picks the ball off of him, races down to the top of the box, before finding Pedro, who wrongfoots Mawson, bang… 1-0 Blues. Just barely four minutes in.
This rattled us, as it should, but immediately we looked nervous. Poor touches from the unlikely of players like Seri, and hard drilled passes to Rico to make commentators think he’s not good with his feet – we know that’s far from the truth. We struggle to place a crossfield ball without it being too hard or too soft, and when it was well played, we struggled to trap it. Chelsea took advantage of our narrow formation and pinged passes from side to side with ease. When we set up this narrow, it reminds me of Slavisa’s 4-2-3-1, and any team can just switch passes from sideline to sideline. Ranieri’s style though is much more drilled defensively, and I will say that it was impressive to see how we communicated in that position.
Many positives were shown such as Cyrus Christie holding off Hazard the majority of the time, as he rarely allowed the tricky winger to get behind him. Christie, though, struggled with his crossing. I have been a big advocate of him this season, and he let me down in the crossing department – you know it’s rough when you’re praying for a player to send a decent cross in. In essence, that was the theme of the match really. As a team, overall, we had our crossing opportunities, the final threaded pass, the poor long ball versus switching quickly; for a team that has let in the most goals this season, it was in the attack where we struggled the most.
I think our captain, Tom Cairney, was outstanding however. When we moved the ball through him, he was incredibly composed and our few chances came way with him finding his teammates in the tightest spots. Also, a nod has to be given to Calum Chambers, who some still think he should be our right centre back, had an incredible match. Again, he was everywhere, he would pop up pressing the right-hand side, then before you know it, he’d be right at the top of our box preventing Kante to pass to Giroud or close off the angle for Hazard to cut inside. He also had the best scoring chances for us which included two outside of the box stingers on target, and then the header off of Seri’s (when he finally beat the first man) corner, that was well saved by Kepa.
Overall, what stood out though was how much more composed Chelsea were. It was simple for them to move the ball, and maintain possession. This is a feature that I’m afraid will not be part of Fulham going forward. We are no longer a sexy football high-possession team like last year, but I am personally fine with this. I have accepted this counter-attack style of football Ranieri brings. While we have conceded 4 goals in 2 matches under his reign so far, it is not reflective of how well our defence is playing overall. What is concerning is the two goals we conceded today are the same kind we had conceded before Ranieri. Individual mistakes to start, then buckling under the pressure to finish us off.
The difference with Ranieri though is the performance and attitude of our players. Our heads barely dropped until the second goal was conceded, but there was still plenty of fight shown from our players. I thought it was fantastic to see Mitro take the armband when Cairney came off – a good nod for our top goalscorer and leader up front. Mitro was also visibly urging his teammates to get up for it. He did the same for the visiting Fulham faithful, who were already booming loudly and clearly throughout the entire match.
I think if we take that defensive performance and attitude into Leicester, we’ll be halfway there. We need to get our crosses, communication and final ball decision-making locked in for Leicester City back at the Cottage on Wednesday. I am confident we will do it and am very confident in our manager and team. This was against one of the best teams in Europe, and we held our own for most of the match. Anyone else up for it? COYW!!