If you have any friends that want to know how Fulham’s return to the top flight has gone, just point them in the direction of the 12pm kick-off on Sunday 22nd November 2020. That’s what this game represented…
It was a match which had everything that has been a topic of conversation in any Fulham-related match analysis, press conference or group chat this term. Avoidable errors, an early goal, glimmers of hope, more errors, a missed penalty, more hope, but ultimately, a disappointing result.
Conceding an early goal is now all too familiar, but this time it came earlier than ever before. To concede after 42 seconds, despite having kick-off is almost laughable. That Dominic Calvert-Lewin didn’t even know which part of his anatomy the ball had gone in off of, points to the shambolic way Fulham have defended in the opening minutes of far too many halves of football this season. This was the ninth time Fulham have conceded in the opening 10 minutes following the start or restart of a Premier League game.
But as has been the case more recently, there was evidence that Fulham are capable of being competitive with established Premier League outfits, at least while in possession. Bobby De Cordova-Reid’s equaliser followed a spell of positive play from Fulham, where Antonee Robinson once again showed the value of his pace on the left-hand side, with Tom Cairney continuing his good form, playing measured passes into attacking areas, and Ademola Lookman using his quick feet to keep the ball away from the Toffees’ defenders.
De Cordova-Reid’s goal also further evidenced that Fulham don’t run in behind defences enough. If we saw more of this endeavour, particularly with the pace of players like the former Bristol City man, and Lookman, surely there is more joy to be had. But our current top scorer’s contribution at the attacking end of the pitch was not enough to make up for his deficiencies at the other. BDR played a role in each of Everton’s three goals, although others were also at fault. His poor touch under pressure lost possession for the first before he neglected to get anywhere near an overlapping Lucas Digne as Everton restored and then extended their lead before half-time, converting blues across the face of The Whites’ goal.
In amongst those particular errors are the continued punishments for attempting to play out from the back. This approach statistically leads to more opportunities than long-ball football, and it is the modern way. However, as with all things, there is a time and a place. Tosin Adarabioyo’s aerial cross-field pass to Ola Aina was ill-advised, at best. That he then chose to head it toward De Cordova-Reid made life more difficult, and under pressure, the attempted a first-time pass to Harrison Reed went astray. The rest was inevitable.
After the equaliser, Alex Iwobi then weaved his way past three half-baked challenges, while yours truly begged for someone to make meaningful contact with him, even if it resulted in a foul. No one did. On balance, the third Everton goal was perhaps more down to good attacking patterns than defensive mistakes, but even then it was all too easy for Digne to cross and Abdoulaye Doucoure to arrive, unmarked, and head in from the middle of the goal. Once again, in crucial moments of the game, Fulham were found wanting.
But this is Fulham, and just when you are ready to condemn us to the drop, hope reveals itself once more. Sort of. I’m not sure anyone with any connection to the club, Scott Parker and his squad included, really wanted to see Fulham awarded a penalty in this game or any game at the moment. But that’s exactly what happened. And everyone’s worst expectations were met, when the beleaguered and out of form Ivan Cavaleiro, seemingly slipped as his spot-kick ricocheted off of his standing foot and flew into the Hammersmith End. All of this happened while once again, De Cordova-Reid, the man with a 100% conversion rate, watched from the bench having been substituted.
And yet, another lifeline appeared as Lookman danced his way into a dangerous area and pulled back for Ruben Loftus-Cheek, summoned from the bench, to score his first Fulham goal. This seems an opportune time to discuss the starting line-up. It wasn’t a complete shock to see Aleksandar Mitrovic missing from the XI after the spate of positive COVID-19 results from his national team in the week prior, but to see him on the bench when available, was. That he was joined by Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa added further concern.
Everton have upgraded considerably in midfield for this campaign, and to see Fulham’s most impressive central player absent, didn’t fill this writer with confidence, jet lag and travel aside. Instead, it was Reed and Mario Lemina tasked with screening the backline. Cavaleiro, whose trials and tribulations have already been documented, was responsible for leading the line in place of our Serbian striker. In possession, Fulham did relatively well in the first half, although the driving runs of Anguissa were missed. Lemina tried to bring the ball forward but lacked the authority of Anguissa when doing so. Out of possession, Everton looked like scoring every time they were within sight of Alphonse Areola’s net.
That Loftus-Cheek started on the bench despite Anguissa’s absence is questionable. He has been with the coaches all week, while others have been on international duty, and still hasn’t managed to convince Parker to start him in the position in which he had his breakthrough at Chelsea. It can be argued that his physique and technical ability make the loanee the most suitable candidate to deputise for the Cameroonian. And when the two were introduced in tandem in the second half, Fulham looked much better for it. Despite Loftus-Cheek’s scoring intervention, needing to score three goals to gain a point is never going to yield results, and despite yet another spirited, team effort in the closing 20 minutes, Fulham never really threatened the equaliser that was required.
Fulham’s failed fightback came without their captain. Regardless of your opinion on Tom Cairney’s leadership qualities, you’ll be hard-pressed to find another club that substitutes their skipper when trying to get themselves back into a game. Especially when he has been as pivotal to the upturn in performances as Cairney has in recent weeks. Withdrawn before the hour mark, he wasn’t the controlling influence he can be, but it would be harsh to suggest Cairney was having a bad game. Fatigue shouldn’t have been an issue either, as unlike others, he had no international commitments to fulfil in the week before. Perhaps he suffered a knock, but if not, couple this with not having a clear penalty taker, and you start to see the signs of dysfunction that often signify a team on the slide.
Fulham’s season won’t be defined by one match, one penalty miss, or one goal conceded in the opening minute. It won’t be defined by one questionable starting line up or one substitution. But the patterns are emerging, and every one of them was on show at Craven Cottage for this fixture. With the ball, Fulham look a capable Premier League side, but without it, there are frailties that refuse to go away and Parker’s post-match comments have become alarmingly similar. Ultimately, we remain on four points and face the prospect of it remaining that way for at least a further three rounds of fixtures. Where we sit at the end of this current run of games will be as much to do with the travails of those sitting below us in the table, as it will the efforts of Parker and his team.