Marco Silva has an embarrassment of riches at centre-midfield. There have been a number of combinations since the start of, what has to now been, a very successful season. Two combinations in particular have been utilised to good effect, but the options, and depth is there for the Portuguese tactician to adapt as necessary as we head into an exciting run-in, that will determine if Fulham visit Anfield and Old Trafford next season, or St. Andrews and The Hawthornes.
As the season commenced, there was an air of uncertainty around the base of the Fulham midfield. Silva was clearly setting up with a 4-2-3-1 formation, and the ‘2’ for the season opener were Josh Onomah and Tyrese Francois. Fans were still debating the future of Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Jean Micheal Seri. Would they stay, or would they go. And if they stayed, where would they fit in? Anguissa was pretty quickly loaned to Napoli, but Seri stayed, and after watching from the bench for the curtain raiser against Middlesbrough, he somewhat surprisingly started, in place of young Fancois, when Fulham travelled to Huddersfield. What followed was a masterclass of deep-lying playmaking as The Whites announced to the division that they meant business for the season ahead.
With Harrison Reed and Tom Cairney not yet fit, Seri and Onomah were partners in the embryonic stages, and to good effect. Onomah has failed to recover his good form of the first half a dozen fixtures, and as Reed stepped up his return his opportunities became limited. Add to that the signing of Nathaniel Chalobah, and Onomah dropped further down the pecking order. Reed and Seri established themselves as the premier partnership in The Cottagers’ engine room, and the team went on an impressive run of seven consecutive wins. Reed and Seri were the partnership for all but one of those, Reed sitting out the trip to The City Ground as a precaution, having been substituted in the midweek win over Cardiff.
Reed provides the running and energy to perfectly compliment, Seri’s metronomic passing, interspersed with line breaking through balls of sublime precision. Fulham have had an supreme level of control in games the two have played together. In the six matches they were paired in the aforementioned winning run, the side averaged in excess if 60% possession, only conceding three goals. Reed, however, is perhaps not as natural in the box-to-box role as he is as a more traditional anchor man, but he has been very effective nonetheless. In the one game in which they were separated, Fulham saw 51% of the ball, although they did still secure a 4-0 win over a resurgent Nottingham Forest. Incidentally that game saw the rare pairing of Cairney and Seri. With neither renowned for the defensive intensity, the two playmakers put in a disciplined performance that belied their natural instincts, particularly those of the club captain.
Seri and Reed continued to dominate possession even as Fulham experienced a run of five games without victory. With form deserting them, Seri was given the welcome distraction of representing his country in the African Cup of Nations, causing Marco Silva to turn to Cairney on a regular basis for the first time during his tenure. Reed returned to his more familiar role of screening the back four, putting out potential fires, and starting attacks less elegantly than his Ivorian team mate, but with more intensity.
Cairney and Reed partnered one another in the next five matches, four of which were victories, with an aggregate score of 23-7 in The Whites’ favour. Cairney’s influence in the final third outweighed Reed’s when he was given the license to roam. The captain’s six goal involvements versus Reed’s two, despite the former making nine less appearances, tells us as much. Fulham’s scoring dramatically increased with TC’s introduction to the midfield, but so did the number in the goals conceded column. Seri’s deeper starting position, coupled with Reed’s defensive instincts allowed Silva’s side to shut out opposition with an effective screen in front of the back four. So a trade off was made. One that was very entertaining for fans, but perhaps a little concerning for a coach who seeks perfection. Indeed Fulham outperformed their expected goals during Cairney’s initial run in the XI, and the worry may have been, if we don’t take our chances, we may be vulnerable at the other end. This proved to be the case as Blackpool grabbed a point at Craven Cottage despite being limited to 25% possession.
Perhaps seeking a more sturdy base, Silva has recently turned to Chalobah. He has partnered both Cairney and Reed, to varying degrees of success. His physical presence is certainly an asset and clean sheets in each of his appearances alongside Cairney suggested a more solid base had been arrived upon, but a less than stellar showing against Huddersfield has led to fans questioning his place in the midfield hierarchy. While not excellent in possession in the recent victory over Cardiff, he lost possession 17 times, more than all but two of his team mates, and with the lowest pass completion of Fulham’s midfielders (75%), his stature and strength was important against notably physical opposition. It is something that he brings to the side that his internal competition does not.
With teams seemingly looking to sit deeper and catch us on the break, the partnership that bore fruit in the early stages of the season would seem the most logical, and on paper, the most effective. Sitting back and giving Seri the space to pick passes has seen devastating results, and had his attacking team mates been less profligate in the win over Peterborough, he would have added to his six assists for season. In games where there may be more opportunities in transition, Cairney would be the most appropriate playmaker. Indeed when chasing the game against Bournemouth, Cairney’s introduction saw Fulham take further control in attacking areas, and it was his cross that led to Tosin Adarabioyo’s equaliser. When expecting to come up against counter-attacking opposition, Seri seems more suitable. His ability to split defences, coupled with his positional discipline is a devastating combination. Chalobah provides a decent option when coming up against the rough house tactics associated with the English second tier, but with the team seeking to win games and secure a league title, very much on the front foot, he does appear to be the odd-man out in the equation.
The reason for that is that the one constant in Fulham’s most effective midfield is the Southampton academy product. Reed provides an energy that the others simply do not, and couples that with impressive passing stats to compliment his defensive contributions. The best balance across the season would appear to have come from the partnership of Reed and Seri, while fans would understandably have been more impressed when Reed has been paired with Cairney, and the goals that has brought. Chalobah can prove to be a useful option when protecting a lead, but may see his opportunities limited in the starting XI, unless Reed is unavailable. Reed is a key cog in Silva’s high energy style. Cairney compliments him best, while Reed allows Seri to flourish. The likelihood is that Reed will be in Fulham’s first team plans for longer than the two men he shares a midfield with, so does Silva choose to get the best from Reed, or use him to get the best from the others?