When Slavisa Jokanovic appointed TC as club captain in 2017, he was considered an odd choice to replace Scott Parker with the more obvious, vocal, Braveheart presence of Kevin McDonald alongside him in midfield. Back then, many saw KMac as the leader of the team regardless of who was wearing the armband, but the composure and influence that Cairney has both on his team mates and the tempo of the game make him a leader in his own way.
As Tom’s role has gradually changed over the years, from being the first name on the team sheet to a reliable plan b, those leadership qualities have become more prominent as we are more exposed to the contrast of seeing how the team plays with or without him on the pitch. It’s important to have “warriors” on your side and those willing to put their bodies on the line for the team but a team of “hard workers” will only get you so far in the Premier League. It needs to be balanced out with quality and other than Willian, it wouldn’t be too inaccurate to argue that Cairney is the most technically gifted player in our squad.
There’s no doubt that we miss what Aleksandar Mitrovic brought to the team. His presence alone occupied 2 defenders, freeing up space for those around him. That doesn’t mean to say our season will be defined by losing our former Serbian talisman but without that focal point, we have to find another way of unlocking the door and creating chances. We need to look after the ball better as the likelihood is our strikers won’t hold it up to bring others into play. Equally, we don’t have the luxury of a striker who can score winning goals out of half chances and boasted a pretty impressive conversion rate. We aren’t going to turn Jimenez or Vinicius into a mould of Mitro, not now, not ever. But we can over compensate by trying to create more chances and be braver in possession with the logic that a higher percentage of chances created, will at least give even the most ordinary finisher enough opportunities to score some goals.
How do we do that? For starters, we need to prioritise starting the players who are the most likely to create and/or score goals. As much as he’s a fan favourite for his tenacity and tireless running for the team, match winner, goals, assists and creativity is not the way one would describe Harrison Reed. We are fortunate to have retained one of the best defensive midfielders in the league in Palhinha and whilst he’s still a Fulham player, do we really need to be playing a combative midfielder next to him at home?
Another sign of leadership in Cairney is that he never goes missing. No matter the quality of the opposition, no matter the score, our captain is always showing for the ball and will usually get more touches than most in a Fulham shirt as he orchestrates our attack. The same can’t be said for Andreas Pereira who after a very impressive start last season has gradually fizzled out and become less effective. This season there have been large anonymous spells from our Brazilian playmaker and he looks lost without Mitrovic in front of him. Perhaps it’s also time to start Alex Iwobi and freshen up the midfield. He may not be as technically gifted as our captain but Iwobi is constantly on the move, making intelligent runs and creating angles for the next pass which forces teams out of their shape. He has a tendency to influence the attack without necessarily touching the ball because he’s always on the go and freeing up space for those around him.
At this stage of Tom’s career, we can’t expect him to be able to play every minute like he would in his prime, but his worth in our current predicament is more to the team than just being the cameo substitute. It’s also horses for courses where certain games will be better suited to the skill set of Reed or Lukic but Tom is capable of lasting 60-65 minutes against middle to lower tabled sides when Fulham need to play on the front foot and find a way to break down a stubborn defence.
Saturday’s match at home to Sheffield United is a prime example of a game where he needs to start. In isolation, losing in the manner we did last Monday night isn’t something to panic over but there are warning signs that Silva needs to start different personnel to try and get our mojo back and Cairney is the player to do that.