It was all going to plan. But it was a plan that would have to be carried out to perfection in its entirety to produce the desired result…
That was the task faced by Fulham, as the champions-elect visited Craven Cottage in Saturday’s late kick-off. For 45 minutes the plan was followed and was successfully executed, but soon after the break, that plan unravelled and within 15 minutes of the restart the game was effectively over.
The frustration that Fulham fans will have understandably felt is borne out of expectations. Expectations that have formed over a three and a half month period where only Saturday night’s opponents have been more defensively sound than The Whites. But that solidity evaporated in a quarter of an hour to forget. Individual errors have been rare in recent months, collective ones ever more scarce, and so it was a disappointing surprise to see John Stones find himself free in the middle of Alphonse Areola’s goal less than two minutes into the second half. If he hadn’t scored, there were two other Manchester City players ready to take advantage of a breached high line.
What followed were moments of indecision and panic, and the most ruthless attacking outfit in the country getting their fill. It would be easy to dwell on Ivan Cavaleiro’s ill-advised dribble inside followed by a careless knock back to Joachim Andersen, and just as easy to spotlight Tosin Adarabioyo’s misjudged back heel and subsequent lunge on Ferran Torres. However, to do so would ignore the relentless pressure City applied every time one of the Fulham backline was in possession of the ball. There can be no escaping that the second and third goals were the result of errors, but they were errors that, at the very least were influenced by the opposition. A high press is exactly what Pep Guardiola made his name on. It’s a tactic that has led to undeniable success in three of the top European leagues, and in European competition with Barcelona. Naivety was evident, but to focus solely on it is a disservice to what is arguably the best club side in Europe right now.
At the other end of the pitch, The Cottagers remain inconsistent in their threat, and the lack of a focal point in attack or much of the night was illustrated by zero shots on target across the entire 90 minutes. But while Fulham’s defence has been impressive since December, The Citizens’ has been miserly. Since losing 2-0 to Tottenham Hotspur in November, they have only conceded 11 goals in 31 matches across all competitions. That being said, there were moments for the hosts. In the first half an unfortunate bounce meant Kenny Tete couldn’t make more of a cross from the left, and in the second, Josh Onomah was denied by a great block after reminding everyone of his runs into the box that led to crucial goals at the back end of last season.
Onomah’s chances have been limited this season, but if he can put together another end of season run, he may have a part to play as the club chase down Newcastle United and Brighton. Another player supporters will be hoping can contribute is Aleksandar Mitrovic. The Serbian’s tough season has been well documented, but he showed some good touches after being introduced just past the hour mark, playing in Onomah for the aforementioned attempt. If Mitrovic can contribute three or four goals across the last nine matches it could go a long way to turning his, and indeed the entire teams’ season around. He scored his last Premier League goals against Leeds United back in September. There’d be no better time to return to scoring form than when the Yorkshire side visit The Cottage on Friday.
This game was always going to be a difficult one to escape unscathed, so while Scott Parker will rue his sides own contribution to their defeat, it was not an entirely unexpected result and one that has befallen 22 of the last 23 teams to face The Sky Blues. Last weekends win at Anfield still provides more than enough confidence that another great escape is on the cards.