Fulham and Huddersfield have a history of countering stats, some quite unbelievable if you dig through the archives – or talk to most members of the Focus team. Before this match, the sides had met 68 times and there was only 1 goal to separate them. Both had won 26 matches each whilst Fulham had the smallest of edges on the Terriers with 94 goals to the home sides 93… unbelievable! Thankfully, at the final whistle, we created daylight in the head-to-head history books and hopefully it was the type of hard battling, well deserved, gritty victory that can be the catalyst for a very promising, enjoyable season.
I had predicted the lineup to be consistent, thus setting up the way we did against Blackburn. The formation was registered as a 4-3-3, but in motion, it looked like a 4-1-4-1 again, with Harry Arter sitting right in front of Ream and Mawson. Joe Bryan set up on the left-back, no surprise, but there was a surprise with our right-back spot. With Odoi injured, the assumption would be Christie starts, or even Harrison Reed – but somewhat (pleasantly) surprisingly, Scott Parker opted to bring in our very own Steven Sessegnon. Parker had talked about bravery after Blackburn and once again this week; it’s fitting of him to give Sessegnon his chance and to show his own bravery in a highly contested match up. It was a bold move which paid off as Steven showed maturity, composure and positional awareness of someone much older than 19 years of age. After receiving a very early booking, it would have been easy to worry that a young man on his debut would dive in showing his naivety and get a second yellow. In fact, the opposite happened as Steven grew into the game linking up effortlessly with the midfield and attacking momentum the team carried for much of the second half. He provided an option for Knockaert on the overlap and in just 90 minutes of football ticked every box that has been missing in the right fullback position since Ryan Fredericks departed the club. An outstanding performance from one of our own and he surely has to keep his place for the Millwall game regardless of Odoi’s fitness.
Back to the match and while we did not start in the shaky manner shown against Blackburn, we didn’t look quite in-sync as passes were intercepted hurting our attacking momentum. Fortunately, Huddersfield’s quality let them down in promising positions as poor touches and decisions prevented the home side from threatening our goal. It was evident what type of style Parker wanted to stress with his team: high in possession and everyone passing to where they were facing. It worked a treat as every player got a touch on the ball, and we connected with multiple pass-and-move combinations to glide through the midfield into Huddersfield’s defensive third. When we reached their defensive third, we overloaded the centre of the pitch with our fullbacks tucked in and both Cavaleiro and Knockaert closer to Mitro at the top of the box. It looked like Slav ball at certain points, the only difference was that Johansen pushed further up, leaving Cairney and Arter as the two central midfielders to circulate the passes.
The irony of such beautiful play is that we took the lead in the clumsiest of fashions, mainly thanks to Huddersfield’s Juninho Bacuna. The midfielder’s attempted, cross-goal right-footed clearance at the touch line was lobbed up to a grateful Mitro at the back-post, whose only obstacle was a bewildered Elphick, who was no match for our striker; Fulham ahead 1-0.
Unfortunately for Bacuna, that was the last of his contributions. His spirits must have been lifted though as the home side equalized six minutes later thanks to a well-placed header by Karlan Grant. Initially, the goal wasn’t given, but the goal-line technology did its part as the referee’s watch buzzed to confirm the ball had indeed crossed the line. Looking at the replay, one could not help but notice how far back Bettinelli’s hand was behind the goal-line. Even if the intent was to reach backwards, then move his arm forward, that never happened – and the ball bouncing off the post did not help matters; 1-1.
Despite not being up to his usual precise long balls over the top, Stefan Johansen had a decent showing – including a perfectly timed pass to Anthony Knockaert, who couldn’t quite lift the ball over the keeper. Johansen soon made way for Bobby Reid, which meant our formation adjusted from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 with Reid directly behind Mitro, pushing Cavaleiro and Knockaert wider to prepare for counters as Cairney and Arter guarded the centre of the pitch. The adjustment paid off almost immediately as we played out from the back: Betts to Ream, Ream to Bryan, Bryan to Cavaleiro, Cavaleiro to Knockaert, Knockaert to Sessegnon, Sessegnon to Mitro, Mitro to Cairney, Cairney to Cavaleiro… Cavaleiro to the back of the net! Fulham 2, Huddersfield 1.
What a gorgeous goal it was for his first goal for the club. A side-footed dipper that gave Huddersfield keeper, Grabara, no chance. More importantly, it proved to be the winner as Scott Parker, like clockwork from the Blackburn match, solidified the formation once more with us switching to a 5-3-2 as Cavaleiro made way for Harrison Reed. Five minutes of stoppage time was announced, but six minutes elapsed past ninety, and despite some dangerous crosses into the box, we held on till the very last one as Le Marchand headed the ball to safety as the final whistle eventually blew.
A solid performance away from home, a complete opposite showing from our last away fixture versus Barnsley. Meanwhile, Huddersfield announced shortly after the match that they had parted ways with Jan Siewert, a painful ending to the German’s time since taking over in January. On the other hand, Scott Parker and co performed admirably. We showed confidence on the ball, we kept it simple with our passes. We took advantage of our wide players, but we maintained composure in a seamless link between our centre midfielders and defenders. The strategies employed were intact, all the way to the changes in formations. There are a lot of elements that breed consistency, which is starting to become routine for our team.
The win rockets us up to 3rd in the early standings, but of course everyone else has a game in hand. We will be back at the Cottage to host Millwall for a midweek clash on Wednesday.
Till then, COYW!!!