It’s arguable, that even when reduced to 10 men, Fulham still looked the more likely to score a winner on Tyneside, and were not in danger of losing the game, despite the numerical disadvantage. It’s somewhat puzzling then, that Newcastle have now moved onto 18 points for the season. Regardless of how they have got there, and how uninspiring their approach to the game is, they are probably half way to safety. The Whites’ are some way behind on the same journey.
With the game 11 vs 11, Fulham looked to be in control, and on their way to what would be a much welcomed three points to mark a positive end to a week, in which three games had brought zero defeats. Instead, a sloppy piece of play from Ola Aina allowed Newcastle to break, and put the usually assured Joachim Andersen, in a difficult situation against the pace of Callum Wilson. What happened next meant London’s original club went from looking to kill the game off, to hunkering down to secure a single point. Did Wilson go down easily? Yes. Was it a soft penalty? Absolutely. Was it avoidable? Definitely. And these individual errors are what cost crucial points. For their part, Newcastle may be dour to watch, but they didn’t make those costly errors, and that’s why they stayed in the game until fortune favoured them.
The cold, hard facts are, that despite turning in some good performances over the last month or so, Fulham sit eight points behind a Newcastle United side that for 90 minutes, they were superior than. 70% possession in the first half, and only one (own) goal to show for it tells the story of where we are at the moment. With the January transfer window fast approaching, the hope is that there will be forward players, with an eye for goal, on the shopping list.
Following the Brighton game it was expected that Aleksandar Mitrovic and Tom Cairney would be restored to the starting XI, and that was case at St James’ Park. Whether they did enough in this showing to reclaim a starting spot more permanently is debatable. Mitrovic looks like a striker short on confidence, and unsure of what to do in a team that has discovered a different way of playing than he has been used to since his arrival inspired two promotions. He is no longer the focal point of every Fulham attack. Ademola Lookman’s pace and dribbling ability, coupled with Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa’s desire to advance the ball into the attacking third earlier meant that Fulham’s best attacking work happened ahead of Mitrovic. Instead, it was Bobby Decordova-Reid arriving on the ball in shooting positions.
Cairney replaced Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the line-up for this trip, after a workmanlike, if underwhelming start to the latter’s loan spell. However, what Loftus-Cheek does offer is forward runs both on and off the ball, and Cairney, much like his Serbian team mate may be finding that the new normal, is not something that he is used to, or best suited to. Cairney was more direct on the ball in this fixture, you have to assume on instruction from his manager. But when not in possession of the ball, his instinct is not to break the lines and move ahead of the ball in the way our Chelsea loanee has done, regardless of how effective or ineffective you believe this has been. With a Boxing Day visit from highflying Southampton on the horizon, it will be interesting to see how Scott Parker sets his team up against talented and aggressive opponents.
Mitrovic did little to suggest he is the best option to lead the line in the way Parker needs him to in this new method of attack. It seems almost unfathomable that the talismanic striker wouldn’t be an automatic choice, but it’s a genuine possibility that his first start in six matches is not the beginning of consecutive starts. His lack of pace was telling as the ball went out wide before the vice-captain had taken up a position in the penalty area, on numerous occasions. When it’s going well, there’s an intensity to The Whites’ play at the moment, and that intensity is not mirrored in our number 9. Finding a way to get the best out of Mitrovic, but maintaining the positives in our play during this recent run, could be the key to survival for Scott Parker and his staff.
There were chances to in the first half to score more than the one goal. Two of those fell to the in-form Decordova-Reid, but he miscued a volley following a brilliant ball by the impressive Mario Lemina, and was then thwarted by the onrushing Karl Darlow after getting to the ball first after a typically incisive dribble by Anguissa. Tosin Adarabioyo put a free header wide of the post, from a corner, and Lookman headed straight at Darlow from another, would-be, Anguissa assist. 2-0 would not have flattered Parker’s men at the break, but the profligacy proved costly.
The Cottagers are back out of the relegation zone at the time of writing, but are very much reliant on other results if that is to be the case on Christmas Day. There’s a resilience to this Fulham team that was not evident earlier in the season, as proven by navigating more than 30 minutes a man light. But that resilience will have to be coupled with results in the not too distant future, if this season is to prove to be more than just glorious failure.