Despite being the better side across the 90 minutes, Marco Silva’s Fulham will have to wait at least another week to record their first victory of the season. But while the result did not satisfy the new head coach, or the 14,000 or so home fans, who returned to The Cottage en masse for the first time since February of last year, the performance offered plenty to sustain the positive vibes in SW6.
The starting line up provided a few talking points, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa was a notable absentee, and the speculation around his future will no doubt ramp up as the transfer window draws to a close with interest reportedly coming from abroad and closer to home. His omission resulted in a midfield trio of Tyrese Francois, Josh Onomah and Fabio Carvalho. One that would not have been predicted by many ahead of this fixture even with the fitness concerns over some of the more established members of the squad. They acquitted themselves well, but the control in the centre of the park that fans have become used to was not always there. The defence often bypassed them in build-up, choosing to find the full backs and wingers to progress the ball up the pitch, and while this may be by design, the change to the midfield looked to have influenced this approach.
That being said, it was from a wide area that success was had. Harry Wilson looks likely to be the marquee signing of this window in West London, and he had exactly the impact desired on a competitive debut. His goal demonstrated the influence he can have at the business end of the pitch, while his running and quality in possession marked him out as one of the more decisive players on the pitch. Silva believes there is still more to come from a player who joined after preseason had already commenced, and if that is the case, there is much to look forward to from the Welsh wizard.
While a new arrival was marking himself out as potential star of the season, an old head was equally impressive. There may not be a better ball playing centre-back in the Championship than Tim Ream, and that has arguably been the case for the last five years. Seemingly short of the standard required for the top flight, the USA international is still more than capable in the second tier and captained the side with authority, despite having to survive an aerial assault from Middlesbrough striker Uche Ikpeazu, who somehow escaped a red card despite leading with an elbow in a less than controlled fashion. It was probably to be expected against Neil Warnock’s charges, and was the most blatant, but not the only example of some rough-house tactics Fulham did well to ensure. Ream’s composure is second to none, and he was a reliable wall in front of Paulo Gazzaniga’s goal. The team is still adapting to our Portuguese leaders’ and that was most evident when the skipper strode out of the back line with ball, attempting to trigger the next attack, but wasn’t presented with the passing options he was hoping for. Some credit can go to the opposition for limiting his opportunities, but from the reactions on the bench it also suggested that some patterns of play are not yet completely drilled.
It is here that the midfield were missing an authoritative figure. Onomah was solid in possession, and Carvalho made some good attacking runs, but none of the three demanded the ball in the middle of the pitch in the way we would expect a Harrison Reed or Tom Cairney to. Francois was disciplined in in his positioning, and didn’t make many mistakes in possession, but at times he lacked the confidence to dictate play. Understandable when making his first senior start, but also evidence that he is still developing and has a way to go before he can command a regular spot in the starting line-up, or even be considered as chief back-up to the ever dependable Reed.
While some credit can go to the opposition for shutting down some attacks at source, there were still chances for Fulham to kill the game, particularly in the first 15 minutes of the second half. The clinical edge was missing, sometimes with the final pass and sometimes with the finish. But the chances were there, and it felt that if this had been four weeks into the new season rather than one, the hosts could have been two or three goals up before Middlesbrough scored with their only shot on target.
In attack, Aleksandar Mitrovic was effective in linking play, however, he didn’t see enough of the ball in the penalty area, with just the one notable effort on goal being a header while under pressure from a Boro defender. Some passes were behind him, some crosses beyond him and other moments when the pass seemed on but the ball carrier took an extra touch, allowing the Warnock-organised defence to close out the space around the target man. Despite that, there can be little doubt this team is set up in a way to make the most of his attributes, which was not always the case in the previous campaign.
It was evident from the first whistle that Marco Silva has a different philosophy to that of his predecessor. The Whites still dominated possession, something fans became accustomed to under Scott Parker during his first full season in charge. But there was a constant probing, and desire to get the ball into the final third and create a scoring opportunity. There is certainly more to come from this new iteration of The Cottagers, and time will tell how successful they will be. Based on this performance, there is plenty of promise, which is a good place to be after game week one.