They say scoring goals is the hardest thing to do in football. Something that seems to ring true for Fulham recently…
Good performances have brought promise, particularly when you consider the level of opposition over the past week. But unlike boxing, where an impressive display can bring victory based on subjective scoring, goals are the only metric by which a victory can be achieved in football.
It’s worth noting that this was The Whites’ third game in eight days in challenging circumstances. The first came at two days notice, on the back of a period of isolation for a significant number of the squad. The next saw the team battle valiantly for more than 45 minutes a man light. There was a spell at the end of the first half against Manchester United where some player looked visibly tired. Fortunately, they were able to gather themselves and show very respectable energy levels in the second half retaining their attacking threat until the final whistle. This is even more impressive when you consider that Ola Aina, Kenny Tete, Ivan Cavaleiro and Harrison Reed have started not just the three aforementioned matches with the majority of the starting-XI for the visit of the Red Devils, but also the FA Cup tie against QPR that preceded the recent league fixtures.
Speaking of Reed, he continues to impress. It’s a disservice to only mention his seemingly limitless engine. He sees danger, intervenes and then adds touches of class and intelligent distribution to his hard work. In his first Premier League season as a regular, he does not look at all out of place amongst the elite.
Defensively Reed and those behind him have performed admirably for a period of time now, but it is the effectiveness at the other end of the pitch that has been below the required standard to pull The Cottagers out of the relegation places. Ademola Lookman showed the clinical edge that others have lacked, putting Scott Parker’s record of never losing when taking the lead on the line, with his expertly taken fifth-minute strike. Had Ruben Loftus-Cheek shown similar composure with the second of two opportunities to equalise that record may have survived another night.
Loftus-Cheek’s performances have been well documented since his arrival on loan. Here he showed his quality and what he can bring to the team. In the second half, he was responsible for nearly every promising attack that the hosts constructed. His penetrating runs and strength on the ball were encouraging, but in the clutch moments, he fell agonisingly short. It will have further added to the urgency with which Parker is imploring the recruitment team to work their magic and deliver a signing that can be the more potent threat that this team needs.
Which brings us to the man Parker has looked to in leading the line recently. Ivan Cavaleiro is tireless. His effort can not be questioned. His quality though is fair game for scrutiny. There can be some sympathy for a player who is not historically recognised as an attacking spearhead. That being said, and in spite of his excellent goal at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last week, Fulham will likely continue to lack the requisite number of goals to change their league position while he remains a first-choice attacker. His position was slightly different against the new league leaders, perhaps a reaction to the gaps in his arsenal. Lookman started centrally with the Portuguese native in a more familiar left-hand side role, but still one of the players that were closest to the opposition goal when his team had possession.
His touch let him down on a number of occasions, and the confidence many had hoped was gleaned from his goal-scoring performance in North London, seemed to have deserted him. It led to the United defence focussing their efforts on stifling the dangerous Lookman, which saw the goal scorer’s influence wane in the second half as Paul Pogba began to dominate proceedings.
All of that being said, Fulham remain a competitive team against the best sides the division has to offer. The next challenge is to be a winning team, against the rest of the league. That starts with a trip to Brighton next Wednesday, via a home cup tie against Burnley, which offers Parker the chance to rotate and freshen up his regular charges. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, in particular, has looked less than his usually stellar self, as the minutes have accumulated upon his return from isolation.
The trip to the south coast is followed by a visit to the Hawthorns for second consecutive relegation six-pointer. Positive results in those games could be the start of Fulham’s ascent out of the bottom three. The alternative may signal something much bleaker. But there is reason to be optimistic following three toe-to-toe battles with members of “The Big Six”, that have seen Fulham land some good punches, and ultimately stay in the fight until the final bell. The Cottagers may have boxed on the back-foot this past week, it’s now time to see Scott Parker’s team claim the centre of the ring and land the knockout blow.