Focus Fives: Key players for the restart

TOP 5 KEY PLAYERS

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Football is back! Going forward, expect to see a lot more content on our website as the games come thick and fast. I have decided to kickstart things by counting down the five players that I feel will be crucial during this mini-season. Let us know on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram who makes your top five…

May I also take this opportunity on behalf of the whole Focus team to say that we hope you are all safe and well and our thoughts go out to anyone affected by Covid-19.

5. KEVIN MCDONALD

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Just like most top five countdowns, there are a couple of names further down the list that pick themselves but the fifth slot is often debatable. Based on what we’ve seen so far this season, Kevin McDonald probably falls a lot further down the list than fifth based on his lack of regular appearances under Scott Parker, but it’s going to be important to utilise the squad over the next few weeks.

Particularly in the first couple of games, I can see Kevin McDonald playing a very important role at the base of a midfield trio. I would imagine that it will take the players on both sides a few games to get back into the swing of things as they’ve not had much of a ‘pre-season’ in the build-up to the restart. Therefore, possession will be key to reserving energy and controlling the tempo of the game to suit/manage our own endurance levels.

McDonald’s positional discipline gives license to the fullbacks to get forward as he can tuck in between Hector and Ream to make a temporary back three. He is also very vocal and assured on the ball with enough experience to be patient in building attacks. By giving the likes of Cairney more freedom to get forward and support Mitro, McDonald not only protects the back four but provides a much-needed balance to the structure of the team, and with so many big matches to play, with the empty stadiums providing an unusual environment, I think it’s important to have our best leader in the team to keep those around him switched on.

4. MAREK RODAK

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Our previous two campaigns in the Championship involved late pushes for promotion with Marcus Bettinelli replacing an out of form David Button on both occasions. Ironically, the same fate was suffered by Betts last year in the Premier League and again this season. In fact, none of the keepers in recent memory have served as anything more than a temporary fix, leaving Fulham without an established number one goalkeeper since Mark Schwarzer left the club in 2013.

Then Suddenly we stumbled across a gem in Marek Rodak, the only player left at the club from our Youth FA Cup Finalists in 2014. Whilst most were lauding the likes of Pat Roberts, George Williams and Emerson Hyndman, it’s Slovakia’s future number one who has gone onto establish himself as one of the first names on the team sheet. Naturally, most goalkeepers are decent shot-stoppers, but what Rodak has brought to the table is composure, with decision making and the ability to perform crucial saves that are game-defining. He has been worth several points this season and I point to Derby away as an example of how important a good goalkeeper can be if you are to be a successful team. It was a game we could quite easily have lost, but thanks to some miraculous saves, we were able to rescue a point in stoppage time and who knows how important that point could turn out to be.

He has earned the right to be our number one and regardless of what division we are in next season, I fully expect Parker to keep faith in Marek between the sticks. There’s no doubt though that he will need to continue his good form during the rest of the fixtures if we are to fulfil our objective of an immediate return back to the Premier League.

3. TOM CAIRNEY

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Injuries have played a factor in why we haven’t seen the best of Tom Cairney since his legendary goal at Wembley but there’s no doubt that when TC is on his game, there aren’t many at this level who can influence a promotion push quite like he can. He dictates the play and a lot of out attacks start from him.

At the start of the season, we saw him arrow the ball into the top corner from the edge of the box on several occasions, an area of the pitch we need to get him in much more often. We had a spell in the middle of the season where Onomah’s form improved as an individual but the form of our captain dipped. He appeared more reserved and less adventurous, with Josh the most likely to drive forward and join the attack. Onomah then missed the last few games before lockdown through injury and Cairney seemed to play with a lot more freedom again. I don’t know if this is a coincidence but we need to find a midfield that can get the best out of Cairney because he’s the most likely to unlock the door of the opposition’s defence.

2. ALEKSANDER MITROVIĆ

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Since Mitro signed for the club, he has been an ever-present in the team. Not only is he a certainty to start, he has been seen as our saviour for some time. If you rewind to the last time we were promoted, we had the likes of Sessegnon chipping in with regular goals and it felt that Mitro was more the final piece of the jigsaw rather than somebody who had to carry the team. His style of play was exactly what was missing and it complimented everything around him, making some good players even better.

His role and stature at the club has grown whilst everything around him seems to have declined. We stared this campaign in the face knowing that we had put all of our eggs in Mitro’s basket and it is no surprise that he is our highest scorer so far by some distance, simply because the rest of the team aren’t hitting the back of the net nearly enough. Whenever we have been promoted in the past, there has always been a main man for getting the goals, but the key to a successful team is having half a dozen who can chip in and take the burden away from the talisman. In small doses, we may have coped without Mitro in the past, but it’s vital that he turns up and is close to his best because without him on fire I fear the promotion aspirations will burn out pretty quickly. We proved in the 1-0 win over Boro in January that you can make as many chances as you like, but it’s no good if you don’t have someone to finish them off.

1. MICHAEL HECTOR

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It may come as no surprise that all five of my picks make up the spine of the team. Some may say Mitro is number one here but I’ve opted for Big Hec. Since being eligible to play in January, Hector has transformed our defence and credentials as a promotion worthy side, with a similar impact to the one Mitrović provided when he joined on loan in January 2018.

We have proved on the rare occasions that Mitrović has been out that in one-off games we can just about get by, with the likes of Kamara able to step up as he did against QPR, which now feels like a lifetime ago. Hector, on the other hand, is indispensable to Scott Parker’s hopes of an instant bounce back to the Premier League. You can’t lose games if you don’t concede and Hector’s presence at the back has given more confidence to all of those around him, with the likes of Rodak, Ream, Odoi and Christie improving significantly as we headed towards lockdown. When Tigana got us promoted in 2001, the team was full of leaders and our momentum didn’t stall as much as it could have been by the loss of Chris Coleman in January as there was enough experience to keep us going. I’m not even remotely confident that the current crop could manage without Hector at the heart of our defence, which demonstrates his importance to the team. He is simply irreplaceable as we (finally) head towards the end of the season.