Fulham are a defensively sound, Premier League team. It’s been a long time since that has been true, but here we are. Four games unbeaten, only two goals conceded in that stretch, and none from open play for 450 minutes. The problems that looked set to doom the Cottagers to another short stay in the top flight appear to have been remedied. The issues that need to be addressed now are at the other end of the pitch…
Joachim Andersen, freed from a suspension on appeal, led the back line to another clean sheet, with the assured Tosin Adarabioyo and a solid Ola Aina, who produced one of his best defensive displays since his move to West London. Some will try to suggest that Fulham were fortunate, as The Saints saw their goal celebrations cut short by VAR reviews, twice. But I see a well-drilled defensive line, that offered the visitors very little hope of getting goal side of them legally. These were old fashioned, visible to the naked eye offsides, not that nonsense measured in toenails and armpits that we have become accustomed to. Alphonse Areola was again, up to the task when called upon, in particular, getting finger tips to James Ward-Prowse’s free-kick in the first half. Besides that, it was a quiet afternoon for the inform Frenchman.
But much like the previous two fixtures, Fulham were unable to sufficiently build upon the foundation laid by their work out of possession. That is not to say that The Cottagers were entirely impotent in attack. Indeed, the two best chances to score belonged to the home side, despite visitors, having those two goals disallowed. But Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and then Ivan Cavaleiro contrived to miss the ball and the target respectively, when presented gilt-edged chances to hand The Whites a much need three points.
Besides the air-shot, Anguissa once again demonstrated his importance to this team. The stats back this up every week, as he leads the side in ball recoveries, dribbles and most other metrics used to judge a footballer. He dominated the midfield once again, providing the platform from which Fulham built their attacks, predominantly down the left-hand side through the tandem of Ademola Lookman and Antonee Robinson. Southampton though, were prepared for this, and made every effort to suffocate Lookman’s space and time on the ball, often double and triple teaming him, to limit his influence. This did leave space for the overlapping Robinson, but his delivery was not always as perfect as the cross that seemed destined to provide Cavaleiro with his first goal from open play this season.
Cavaleiro’s miss means that questions around the omission of Aleksandar Mitrovic continue to be asked, and will be until Fulham are able to demonstrate a consistent goal-threat. Although his absence from the starting XI is not all that confusing when you consider what Scott Parker is trying to do. It’s important to remember that this is an almost entirely different group of players to those that earned the club promotion. The back five is entirely different. Harrison Reed is a rotated member of the midfield, Bobby Decordova-Reid is in a completely new role as is Ivan Cavaleiro. This team is not the same as the one that was so effectively spearheaded by the Serb last season. They play in a very different way.
Fulham’s attackers now press in two’s and three’s. Mitrovic, despite his potency in front of goal, is not a pressing forward. Cavaleiro is currently doing that job out of possession, and it’s hard to suggest he isn’t doing it well. When his side has the ball, he is able to stretches defences with the threat of running in behind them, but also showed on Boxing Day that his hold up play continues to improve. His finishing, however, his not been up to the standard required. From 19 shots, he has a single goal, the penalty against Leicester. He also has a penalty miss to his name, and his xG, somewhat inflated by those two penalties, stands at 3.06. He is underperforming in his goal return. The missed header in the second half a prime example of the need to be more clinical.
Can Mitrovic offer what Cavaleiro brings to the team at present? The short answer is no. Should Parker change his tactical approach to suit his target man? It’s hard to make a case for it at the moment, due to the upturn in the team’s performances. That defensive solidity that has been instilled is about more than just the defenders, who have been excellent, and the goalkeeper, who has been outstanding. The whole team defends as a unit. In a relegation battle, it is unlikely that Parker feels he can afford to defend with one less player.
The other debate that will be had in the build up to Wednesday’s trip to Tottenham Hotspur, will centre on the merit of starting Ruben Loftus-Cheek. It’s not unfair to suggest that his loan move has not had the impact any of the stakeholders would have hoped. His physical presence cannot be ignored, but his productivity is low. Club captain Tom Cairney is the seemingly obvious replacement, but again, his physical attributes do not suit the role that this system demands. Cairney has been criticised for failing to track midfield runners and for failing to be progressive enough on the ball. While Loftus-Cheek is not doing an expert job in his ball progression, he does track back to good effect.
Scott Parker is now in a situation where, two of his most recognisable, and previously pivotal players, do not fit into the system which apparently suits the other 8 outfield players. It’s too simple to merely suggest that Mitrovic, scorer of 26 league goals last season, will solve the potency issues. It is equally short-sighted to imply that simply inserting Tom Cairney into the role of an underperforming Loftus-Cheek, will have a positive impact on the team. Both started against Newcastle just a week ago, with little impact, either positive or negative. While his credentials at this level are certainly unproven, the more fitting replacement for Loftus-Cheek currently on the books at Motspur Park would be Josh Onomah, based on physicality and playing style. But he is not in the 25-man squad presently, and so is not an option until at least the turn of the year.
It would not surprise me to see Parker keep faith with his current charges though. At the end of this game, he will look back on 90 minutes where Southampton, who have matched Liverpool for points on the road this calendar year, were limited to a set-piece opportunity, and where his own team passed up two glorious chances to claim the win. Anguissa may not be your first pick to arrive on the ball in the box, but his technical ability would not cause you to believe he wouldn’t score if a similar opportunity were to present itself in the future. Cavaleiro is a slightly different case. Tony Khan may well be scouring the market for a forward that offers all of the Portuguese’s industry, but can couple that with an eye for goal.
There was more cutting edge on display in the last action at Craven Cottage in 2020 than had been witnessed in Fulham’s previous two outings against Brighton and Newcastle, but the final touch was missing. That being said, the foundation has been laid for a more fruitful 2021. With one more game to play before Big Ben rings in the new year, many a Fulham fan will be far more optimistic about our survival chances than they were a month into the season. Losing is a habit that this team has broken. The next step is to create a winning one