You’ve heard Fulham performances described many times in the past as being a tale of two halves. Well, this wasn’t, both halves were just shit but at least it was a consistent 90-minute display.
What was built up as a massive opportunity to close the gap on the top two to just one point after the recent surprise defeats for Leeds and WBA turned out to be as exciting as Fulham getting a corner, overhyped!
The team news was announced with more shock injury news on the horizon. This time for the absence of last week’s match-winner, Anthony Knockaert. No Mitro, no Abou and now no Anthony who’d taken a Knock, as the Fulham faithful lost a bit of aert. Instantly, the first thought that came to my mind was “who’s going to score the goals?” and the answer was well and truly nobody!
It’s can be very difficult to criticise a manager who’s having to juggle a team with so many injuries to attack-minded players but a poor injury list can lead to an easy excuse for such a half-hearted performance. The reality is, Charlton were poor and regardless of our problems, they were there for the taking but tactically we simply weren’t good enough. The mentality of the team was defeatist before we’d even entered the field of battle. Where was the hunger? The desire? The aggression to force a siege upon the Addicks goal? It felt like the agenda was to make sure we didn’t lose as opposed to giving it everything to win the game. Everything about the performance felt safe. A contrast to last week where we were playing risky balls through the lines, forcing Boro into retreat and defenders out of position. Instead, every pass last night was played to the nearest and easiest man to find. It was slow, it was boring and it was extremely predictable.
Charlton went into the game having won just one of their last sixteen matches. This was a different animal to the one we struggled against at the Cottage last October. A side with a bigger injury crisis than we are currently experiencing which begs the question, why did we go into the game with two holding midfielders? That to me signalled the intent from the off, that a clean sheet was more important than the win. With the lack of a presence up top and without Knockaert’s energy out wide, the balance of the team was severely compromised and Parker didn’t have the answers for it. It’s often been criticised this season but the selfishness and arrogance of Knockaert was badly missed. It needed someone brave, to be greedy, to try and be the hero and do something creative to spark the game into action. But instead, we were left with the most generous eleven in the squad. Happy to give the ball to someone else, letting them take responsibility and find the answer to unlock the Charlton defence. Where was the leadership? Where was the captain? Cairney looked mentally drained and was very sloppy on the ball which was uncharacteristic. His tempo for a long time has been at walking pace and whenever he received the ball in this match and had the opportunity to lead a counter-attack, he strolled with the ball in slow motion without a care in the world. No urgency, no enthusiasm and that body language passed onto the rest of the team with nobody shouting or rallying the rest, not even Kmac.
Charlton also played their part in making this painful to watch. The pitch was patchy, it was dry and it was clearly designed to turn the game into a scrappy, low in quality affair so that Charlton could be a match for us and that’s exactly what the fans got for their money. A bit of time-wasting thrown in for good measure by the Charlton keeper every time there was a free-kick awarded to the home side in their own half. The keeper would take the kick having made pigeon steps towards the free-kick position, wasting a good thirty seconds whilst a Charlton player distracted the ref. It was very subtle but a clever way of running down the clock, summing up the night overall. Frustrating.
There was no movement in the attacking third, nowhere to go and no options to find. There was an imaginary brick wall parked across the Charlton 18 yard box where the majority of the Charlton side were camped for the majority of the game and no Fulham player dared to go beyond them. Every time we won the ball back and could have hit them on the counter, Bobby Reid who was supposed to be the man we were pinning our hopes on as an emergency striker, ran towards the ball dropping deep every time. Instead of making runs in behind and stretching the gap between their defence and midfield, he was always on top of the man on the ball as if there was a magnet dragging him towards it. At one point the lack of penetration in the first half led to all ten outfield players almost being in a straight line across the halfway line. A formation of 0-10-0.
What makes the performance even more frustrating is that Charlton Athletic were poor. We’d still be waiting for a goal if the match was ongoing today which begs the question why you’d leave it until the 87th minute to bring on a natural goal scorer in Jay Stansfield? If he’s good enough to make the bench, then I can’t see any excuse as to why he wasn’t deemed ready to come on in a game where we had no striker at all. Having a constant presence through the middle would have freed up Reid and Cavaleiro out wide and given them an option to pass to. Instead, we persevered with no one in the box and a passing regime that went round in circles, eventually going nowhere. It made no sense. Given the scenario we faced, the majority of other teams in this division would have played percentage football at stages in this game, having more bodies in the box than normal hoping that the ball would fall to one of them, maybe a lucky bounce, maybe a deflected shot, anything would have done! Logic suggests that the more men you have in the box, the more chance of picking someone out. Between them, they could have compensated for the lack of a natural threat by overloading it with players with half a chance of a goal.
I personally would have brought on Johansen and Stansfield much earlier and gone with the two of them up front. StefJo has a decent shot on him and would have provided another body for the Charlton centre backs to occupy, creating a front 4 of Cav, Johansen, Stansfield and Reid.
I know I don’t have the answers but you’ve got to try something in that situation. Instead, we brought on Christie? Not aimed as a dig at Cyrus but the game was crying out for a game-changer, a match-winner and of all the players on the bench, I don’t think Christie would have been my first choice sub. Parker has had his critics this season, but the combination of a couple of wins and the top two falling apart has made those negative comments go quiet of late. In order to keep it that way, he’s got to do more tactically in a game like this. I do wonder how last minute the injury to Knockaert was because it didn’t feel like we were prepared or set up with any plants if the injury caught our management by surprise as much as it did us fans.
A third clean sheet on the bounce was the only positive to take from the game and once again Michael Hector put in an outstanding, commanding display at the heart of our defence. Already, he has the presence of a very influential player in our team and with the exception of the golden chance that he headed wide and should have scored from in the second half, it was another display that put him at the top of the class. I don’t think Cairney is far from being dropped at present and Hector is the future of this team. So in my opinion, I wouldn’t oppose making him the captain next week and for the foreseeable future.
Hopefully, come the end of the season, we don’t miss out on the top two by a couple of points because if that’s the case, then this one will be up there with Luton away as a massive opportunity missed for 3 points. But it’s done now, we need to forget it and be positive going into our next match. Man City away, can’t wait…