It’s been such a strange season supporting Fulham. I have found the football frustrating to watch and the majority of the matches quite boring as a spectacle. I’ve also been consistent with my views of Scott Parker and even through the good spells where we would win 4 on the bounce, I was never convinced by his handling of the squad and the tactics with which we approached games.
However, I have a theory that in the most ironic of ways, the boring, safe football we’ve been mastering all season is actually going to be the recipe to get us promoted (assuming the playoffs still go ahead, what with this Coronavirus issue). I can hear the rest of the Focus team mocking me as I type this, suggesting I’ve made the biggest U-turn since Joe Bryan’s on the M40 heading up to Aston Villa! But that’s not the case at all. As I said initially, this has been a strange season and it’s about to get weirder for me. I am convinced that we are going to win the playoffs and even if we do, I find it hard to believe that I will change my mind on Scott Parker…what a conundrum!
Trying to break into the top two is a completely different challenge to the playoffs. The playoffs is a mini-tournament where the aim is simply NOT TO LOSE! That is music to Scott’s ears because it never feels like we set up to be very adventurous anyway. The approach we have taken thus far was always going to make catching the top two difficult as the margins are too small between winning and drawing. We are quite content to keep games tight and hope to nick a one-goal win, and our results this season back that theory up. Over the course of the season, those small margins will result in too many draws and therefore too many dropped points to catch the automatic spots. But in the playoffs, it doesn’t matter if you draw. It doesn’t matter how many you win by or how many chances you create. You can be as interesting as slowly drying paint and as long as you come out the other end without losing, the worst that can happen is a penalty shootout (although with Fulham’s recent history with taking penalties, that’s not exactly an ideal outcome).
I look at Brentford this season and what I see is Slav’s team of 2016/17. Easy on the eye, scoring goals for fun but not consistent enough to be more than a playoff candidate. Yet despite being able to score 3, 4, 5 or even 7 goals in games this season, there is always a way to stop a team like that even if it means ‘Parkering’ the bus. It is much harder to beat a team who don’t lose often than it is to stop a team who might be capable of goals galore. Will they approach the playoffs in the same manner that we did against Reading? There’s your proof that being hard to beat and keeping things tight can be very effective. That same season, Huddersfield won the playoffs without scoring a single goal! They drew both legs 0-0, won on penalties and then did the same in the final at Wembley. Even our big day out at Wembley: beautiful football in the first half, dug deep in the second but we only won because we kept a clean sheet. If the opposition doesn’t score, you can’t lose (in open play).
Since 2004, these are the results of the Championship Playoff Final: 2-1, 1-0, 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 1-0, 1-0, 2-1, 2-4, 3-2, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 3-0, 1-0, 1-0.
In 12 of those 16 matches, only one team scored and therefore only needed 1 goal to win the tie. In 13 of the 16 finals, there was only 1 goal to separate the teams. This is exactly what Scott Parker does!
Jose Mourinho has made a career out of this style and (especially in semi-finals and finals) proved time and time again that pretty football and being adventurous isn’t the only way to win tournament football and tournament football is exactly what the playoffs are.
Another key element to my theory is the sensational Michael Hector. Since Hec made his debut against Hull on January 11th, Fulham have only lost one league game, which is less than anyone else. We have also only conceded 8 goals, which is less than a goal per game, meaning that we are hard to breakdown and if you were to write off the Barnsley 0-3 defeat as an out-of-character, one-off display, then those figures are even more reassuring.
Admittedly, the playoffs are always a lottery and as the disappointment of the Reading tie in 2017 proved, you never know what can happen on the night. Stats suggest that the teams who finish 3rd and 5th usually have the most success in the playoffs.
Could this be our year (again)?