“Keep pushing with a team that is moving in the right direction” was the message from Scott Parker after Fulham’s most recent addition to their litany of stalemates accumulated this season. But for all of the manager’s belief that The Whites are indeed moving forward, this weeks results point to a progress that has stalled…
Taking no more points from fixtures against Brighton and West Brom than they did against Tottenham and Liverpool tells a story of a side that will likely take a feeling of regret into the coming days when training resumes at Motspur Park.
This match was different to the Brighton visit, in that while points were effectively dropped, The Cottagers never had a firm grasp on them to begin with. That was not the case at The Hawthorns. Sam Allardyce was forced into a change after little more than 20 minutes as Fulham grabbed control of the game and the lead, in a first half that demonstrated everything fans have been hoping for since the first signs of progress appeared. A desire to win the second ball, a confidence to control possession and, most importantly, and incisiveness that threatened goals on almost every attack.
There have been a number of toothless displays this season from Fulham. Not on this day. The opening goal was delivered via an exhibition of target man efficiency as Aleksandar Mitrovic excellently controlled the ball with his chest while shielding it from defenders, before sliding in Bobby Decordova-Reid to add to his tally for the season. Fulham were in full flight, and a joy to watch. Mario Lemina shackled any West Brom attacks at the source, and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa continually set the Cottagers on their way toward The Baggies’ goal, linking well with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and the onrushing Antonee Robinson.
But in spite of that, the goal tally only stood at one when the referee blew his whistle to indicate half-time. It could have been very different. Had Ademola Lookman looked left instead of right, and played the ball to a seemingly reinvigorated Mitrovic in the penalty area, rather than in the direction of a crowded Decordova-Reid. Or if Loftus-Cheek had also played in the Serbian rather than take a wayward shot with his weaker foot from the edge of the area. There was also an opportunity when Decordova-Reid was released again, arcing his run cleverly and latching onto a through-ball only to hit the base of Sam Johnstone’s post when one-on-one. The leading scorer should have helped himself to a brace, but it’s hard to be too critical as he appeared to do everything right in that situation. Millimetres separated him and his side from a comfortable lead.
But as is the way, a team 1-0 down is unlikely to be as poor after the interval. Fortunate to still be in the game Allardyce instructed his charges to up the tempo, increase the intensity of their press, and play higher up the pitch. Nothing revolutionary, surely nothing that wouldn’t have been expected. And yet, that is all it took for the hosts wrestle control of the game from the meek side in yellow who emerged after the break. It wasn’t until Matheus Pereira had turned the game on it’s head that Fulham re-emerged from their mid-game slump. Ivan Cavaleiro and Harrison Reed came on to great effect, the former heading in from the midfield ball winners’s precision cross.
Reed’s combativeness allowed the side in yellow to gain authority of the ball once again, and Cavaleiro offered a positive outlet on the left. It also meant that Mitrovic was brought back into the game, having been starved of service for the first 20 minutes of the second half. When in this kind of form, and given the ball in the right areas he is an asset many Premier League teams covet. His form has not been what we have come to expect, but if he can once again be the talismanic figure he has been in previous seasons he will be an instrumental part of the Fulham attack. But the missed chances of the first 45 minutes made the second half a rescue mission, rather than the procession Fulham fans should have enjoyed.
The gap to safety is not insurmountable and is currently four points. After Brighton host Tottenham tomorrow the hope is that it will not grow. Fulham will then have a game in hand once again, and so there is reason to believe. Regardless of the low level of resistance, the first half should serve as encouragement that with a sharp Mitrovic, and better decision making in the final third, the elusive wins are within reach. The problem is, that unless Scott Parker can mastermind a number of unexpected victories, no one above the the dreaded red line need worry. Anyone that has watched Fulham since November will have seen that there is a team capable of winning Premier League games. The concern is whether they will win enough of them.
Three of the five games that come in February will be at home. All five opponents, while certainly not “bankers”, can be considered beatable. And so Parker’s assertion earlier in the week that the games in East Sussex and the West Midlands were not season defining is technically true, if results don’t improve at the rate the performances have, most will look back on the past four days as the fixtures that gave the biggest clue as to the eventual fate of his team.