It’s been 72 years of hurt for Fulham fans travelling to Goodison Park. Twenty-two top-flight matches have come and gone, without so much as a point to show for our train, coach and petrol fares. And in a season where no one could make the trip to Merseyside as a spectator, The Cottagers put an end to the longest-running loss-streak in English top-flight history.
Josh Maja, as a result of his match-winning brace, is now embedded in Fulham folklore. The hope will be that he writes himself into it further by helping to fire the club to the safe haven of 17th. After a first half in which he pressed effectively, and made positive runs off the ball, he didn’t have many sights of goal. An awkward rebound that he poked over the bar was the best he could muster, and it really wasn’t much of a chance. There were better opportunities in the first 45 minutes, but they fell to others, and as has been the case too often this season, they were not taken. When Bobby Decordova-Reid’s ambitious, near-post flick hit the far post, it felt like it might be another one of those nights. As long of a wait as it has been for a victory in the blue half of Merseyside, it feels almost as long since Scott Parker’s team got their just deserts following a good performance
Maja looked a little uncertain on the ball at times in the opening half, and his touch was not always sure. But there were lots of positive things happening around him as Harrison Reed established control of the midfield, collecting the ball from the back line and distributing to Decordova-Reid and Ademola Lookman, who caused the Everton back line repeated problems throughout the first period. They continued in the same vein after the restart, but it was Maja who grew after reemerging from the tunnel. Breaking the deadlock only emboldened him further. He demonstrated the ruthlessness that has been missing in front of goal and showed good hold-up play and a strong work rate that, for now at least, cements his place in the starting line-up.
While Maja’s performance was a welcome addition, Harrison Reed has been excellent ever since arriving in West London, initially on loan, before signing permanently following promotion. He does the work that isn’t always seen. Winning the ball back, putting out fires before they catch ablaze and passing the ball to his teammates at a high success rate. But on Merseyside, he was even more impactful. He still did everything we have come to expect of the red-headed dynamo, but he also became the conductor, orchestrating attacks with a willingness to turn on the ball and play forwards. He was brave both in and out of possession and indeed it was his shot that led to Maja’s predatory second goal.
Reed’s influence was vital, as Scott Parker switched to a rarely seen 4-4-2. Decordova-Reid flourished in a central striking position in which he had the freedom to drop into the space between The Toffees’ midfield and defence, while aware that he would always have Maja ahead of him. Ruben Loftus-Cheek played mostly to the right of the four-man midfield but had the license to drift infield and affect play from there. It still doesn’t seem like his most suited position, but it is certainly the position that suited the team on this occasion. Whether you believe Loftus-Cheek has lived up to his reputation or not, one thing that can not be questioned is his application. His effort is evident regardless of the position he asked to play. Somewhat surprisingly, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa missed out on the starting XI for the second game in a row, but the new formation called for the discipline of Reed and Mario Lemina. Anguissa has plenty to offer, but he may not be easy to shackle to central midfield pairing. The two in place on this night were right for the task at hand.
The formation allowed for effective pressing from the front, with any three of Lookman, Decordova-Reid, Maja and Loftus-Cheek harrying Everton’s defenders and forcing them into rushed or long passes, that were invariably picked off and reestablished Fulham’s control of possession. It also meant that when in possession, the forwards were not isolated. Too often this season the space between the spearhead and the support has been too vast. It has led to the furthest man forward having to drop deep, and further away from the opposition goal. By deploying two strikers, Scott Parker ensured there was always an easy option for the frontman with the ball. It also ensured a greater goal threat, as both strikers followed Reed’s shot that came back off of the post, and were ready and waiting for any balls across the face of Robin Olsen’s goal.
It’s would be easy to forget about the back four, because we have become so accustomed to their solid outings. They have conceded fewer goals than defending champions Liverpool this season. If you’d have suggested that would be the case back in October you would have been laughed out of any sensible football discussion. Such is the assuredness of the individuals that comprise The White Wall, Ola Aina’s move to the left back was seamless, as the Nigerian international completed his defensive duties without concern, and provided the assist for the crucial opener. On the other side, Kenny Tete confirmed we had indeed signed the right Josh on deadline day, as he prevented Everton’s King breaking away with minimal fuss when it seemed the Norwegian was about to provide a rare threat to Alphonse Areola’s goal. Between the fullbacks, Joachim Andersen commanded the air space in front of the French goalkeeper, and Tosin Adarabioyo was faultless alongside him.
It was a result that felt a long time coming. Last week, The Whites had the better of the 90 minutes against West Ham. But the goalless draw felt like scant reward, and less than what was required following results elsewhere. There were murmurs of discontent among the fan base. More than murmurs in some parts. The belief built up following the win over Leicester City back in November, the same belief that was strengthened by a spirited draw with Liverpool and survived a COVID-19 outbreak to almost get the better of Tottenham Hotspur had dissipated.
Following wins for those above The Whites in the table, and what felt like dropped points against West Bromwich Albion, questions were being asked of whether Parker’s insistence that the team were going in the right direction was misplaced. The current run of fixtures seems to represent a last chance to put together a run that could see a climb to eventual safety. The West Ham draw was the start of that run and didn’t fill supporters with much hope. This result will have replenished the positivity among the Fulham Faithful.
Parker has remained steadfastly consistent in his message. Each pre-match press conference, every post-match interview and any in-house preview or reaction, he has said the same things. This is a team that has improved demonstrably since the start of the season, a team that does not play like a relegation-threatened side and a team that is capable of going on a winning run. We re yet to see proof of the last point, but here’s hoping it is evidenced at another unhappy hunting ground in midweek when a surely buoyant squad travel to Turf Moor. It’s 70 years since we won in Burnley. Did somebody say “London buses”?