As Big Ben chimed at the stroke of midnight, twelve months ago, bringing an end to 2021, I don’t think anyone could have comprehended the near perfect 2022 that Fulham were about to experience…
Starting in the January with an astonishing run of wins including a 0-7 victory in Reading, followed by two 6-2 victories back to back at the Cottage that would see us break records. A few months later, comfortably being crowned Champions as the first Championship team to score 100 goals, seeing Mitro break Guy Whittingham’s record as we completed our third 7-0 victory of the season, funnily enough against Nathan Jones, now of Southampton. To then deliver arguably the best transfer window in our history, hitting the ground running in the Premier League and barring a shambolic collapse – be pretty much safe before the calendar year had ended thanks to back to back victories to sign off the year in style. What a privilege it has been to experience it!
Has there ever been a twelve month period quite that incredible? I’m sure Roy Hodgson might want a word but the fact we are even able to debate it shows what a good place we are in right now under the management of Marco Silva.
Perhaps if you’d been at the Cottage for this one and hadn’t followed our season so far, you’d be puzzled at the enthusiasm. In isolation, this was quite a flat performance with not many players reaching their usually high standards. Southampton deserve credit for their part in making it as difficult as possible, allowing very little time on the ball, as Fulham were suffocated every time they tried to play the ball into feet and limiting any rhythm for the hosts. When you factor in the wet and windy conditions as well, it made for a game more suited to the nitty gritty of a team bottom of the league, limited in quality, who wanted to fight in an almost desperate attempt to take something from the fixture.
No disrespect to Southampton but it was quite reassuring to see the different levels of quality on display and to appreciate how far we have come since our last relegation, because in seasons gone by, it would have been us chasing both shadows and points, eventually coming up just short even when our opponents weren’t at their best.
That’s exactly what happened on New Years Eve. The intensity of The Saints when closing down the space, and their organisation behind the ball meant that Southampton offered a different test to the ones we’ve encountered most recently against the Manchester sides pre World Cup and at Selhurst Park on Boxing Day. This was a day where patience was needed and an ability to break down quite a robust wall in blocking the opposition goal. Perhaps that’s what is so impressive about this Fulham side at the moment. There is a tactical flexibility about the starting XI where they can mix up the play and manage the game as well as any Fulham team I’ve seen. On the counter attack there is dynamism. When controlling possession there is composure and intelligence. Under pressure there is organisation and when facing stubborn defences, an ability to find a way through, be it through incisive passing or set-plays, which have become a staple of Silva’s Fulham.
Very fitting then, that on a day when the world paid its respects to the magnificent Pele, that two Brazilians would combine. As Saints focused all their attention on a very crowded 6 yard box, Willian took the opportunity to dink an inch perfect pass to the edge of the box, inviting Andreas Periera to strike it first time on the volley. Andreas obliged and thanks to a bit of luck via a deflection, Fulham took the lead.
Whilst it was a frustrating day in midfield, it was a pretty straight forward afternoon for our defence. Unless of course you give away a sloppy free kick in the perfect range for the team whose captain sits second behind David Beckham as the most successful set piece taker in Premier League history. When James Warde-Prowse stood over the ball, Craven Cottage held its collective breath and had every reason to, as the England international executed the one real moment of quality on offer from Nathan Jones’ side.
The equaliser took the sting out of any potential flow to the second half and it was crying out for a change. This was a game desperate for the control of Tom Cairney. Fulham’s skipper was part of a double substitution with Dan James and it’s fair to say TC was the more influential of the two. There have been rumours that James’ loan may be cut short in January to free up the extra domestic loan spot in the squad. Based on what we’ve seen so far, you’d have to say it wouldn’t be surprising if that happened but for his flaws, in his last two home appearances off the bench, he has scored and won the team a penalty. In the end, neither determined the result but the goal against Manchester United goal nearly earned a deserved point. James offers something not many tiring defenders want to face and that blistering pace, if nothing else causes defences to be wary of him, taking some of their attention away from the likes of Periera or Mitrovic. He could be worth keeping as wild card.
It was an emotional day as we said goodbye to one of our greatest players – the legendary George Cohen. As a one club man, fondly associated as our very own World Cup winner, the iconic number 2 shirt is synonymous with George, and just like it was fitting for the Brazilians to produce some magic in the first half, Kenny Tete did George proud with another first class performance, topped off by flicking on the corner at the near post to assist João Palhinha for the late winner.
At times in the latter stages of our promotion, I preferred having Neco Williams in the team because he was exciting going forward but, like many others in this squad, Kenny’s strengths benefit the team more in the Premier League and at the moment, our fullbacks are arguably as important as anyone in the squad. A large reason for that is because winning the 50/50 battles goes a long way to determining the outcome of a game and Robinson and Tete, are winning those duels.
It would have been nice to finish the game off with the penalty but for all his strengths, you can never be overly confident when Mitro steps up to take a spot kick. It’s a delicate situation because the talisman clearly thrives on confidence and his managers faith in his ability. To relieve him from penalty duties might have a knock on effect but at the same time, there is no “I” in “team” and it’s hard to believe anyone else would still be on penalties if they’d been as inconsistent as he has. The concern here is that we seem to be getting quite a few penalties this season and in those tight games that could go either way, we want to be taking advantage when spot kicks are awarded.
Despite the less than stellar record from 12-yards, Serbia’s record goalscorer signed off 2022 with an astonishing 32 goals and if anyone deserves a bit of leniency for missing a penalty or two, it’s certainly him. It’s impossible to imagine how the year would have gone without him.
Fulham head into 2023 in a very strong position and are on course to break the clubs best ever points tally in the top flight (53) if we maintain the form shown in the opening 17 games.
Proud of you Fulham. Happy New Year everyone!