I went into this game feeling unusually confident. On the face of it, a trip to the London Stadium to face an in-form West Ham team is difficult. Despite their position in the table, they had exceeded expectations so far and performed well against some of the top clubs in the league. But I felt we were in the best place we had been since the season began, coming off the back of an excellent win against West Brom and I expected us to build on that showing.
At 7 pm, the teams landed, and I was pleased to see that Scott had opted for the same 11 that beat the Baggies, apart from Mario Lemina- who was replaced by Harrison Reed due to a slight injury. Earlier in the season, I would have been nervous seeing Reed at the heart of midfield, but against West Brom, he successfully allayed my fears with a dynamic second-half showing.
West Ham named an unchanged 11 from their defeat at Anfield. One thing I believed would be essential if we were to beat the Irons would be to limit the impact their midfield lynchpin Declan Rice would have on the game. It goes back to the age-old cliché of if you watch the game, you won’t see much of him but if you train your eyes upon him you begin to see more of the game. Sure, he doesn’t score many goals or even grab many assists but, rest assured, he is key to how they operate.
The game started at a ferocious tempo, and we had our goalkeeper Alphonse Areola to thank for the fact we weren’t a couple down inside the first few minutes. He made excellent reflex saves to deny full-backs Arthur Masuaku and Aaron Cresswell, who under Moyes has been playing more as a left-sided centre back. West Ham were pressing us all over the pitch and I was worried as it looked as if we were on the ropes with 85 minutes still to play.
As the first half wore on, we gradually grew into the game and I thought we showed great defensive awareness and organisational skills to keep a talented West Ham team at bay. It was the sort of stuff that fans have been crying out for, and it felt like a completely different game in comparison to our last trip to the London Stadium, which ended in a 3-1 defeat.
I feel that these last 2 defensive performances have come about as a mixture of some excellent work on the training ground and the introduction of Joachim Andersen to the backline. No matter how good the 4 defenders may be, it is always going to be hard to keep the goals out if they have never played together before- especially as we saw against Leeds and Aston Villa. Credit must go to Scott, to Stuart Gray, and to the defenders themselves. Since that dreadful Villa game, the defensive performances have been on a steady upwards trajectory- except for Palace.
About Andersen, I feel as if his introduction has helped take our game to the next level. Players such as Adarabioyo and Robinson with little to no top-level experience are naturally benefitting from playing alongside someone with his experience, having played in Serie A with Sampdoria, and then competing in Ligue 1 with OL last year.
And so it was that we came out for the second half with the score locked at 0-0. We had played well in the first half. We hadn’t outperformed our hosts by any means (in the same way that they hadn’t outperformed us), but we’d put in a performance that any Fulham fan would have taken beforehand. I thought we had to do better going forward- that’s only natural after not having a shot on target in the first half, and it felt as if the game was there for the taking for either side- all that was required was for our men to show a bit of bravery going forward. Long have I thought that I’d love to see us take a few more risks going forward, rather than passing and waiting for a gap. After all, having a go never hurt anyone. I feel as if there are skillsets being unnecessarily wasted every time I see us pass it around the edge of somebody’s box.
We played well throughout the second half, going closest through Bobby Reid, whose low effort drew a good save from Fabianski. We absorbed the pressure like a big black and white sponge and counter-attacked with some menace. It looked as if we were going to take a point from the game, and a well-earned point at that.
Yet, as the clock on my screen ticked into the red, Fabian Balbuena played a ball into the box- and it was met by the head of Andersen. But, despite his efforts, he could only divert the ball into the path of the (annoyingly) skilful Algerian Said Benrahma, who was making his home debut after arriving on loan from the Lego House. He squared it to Czech Tomas Soucek, who stroked it past Areola and into the bottom right corner on 91 minutes. Heartbreaking stuff, as it was the least we deserved having worked so hard, and the fact that there was a definite offside shout there that went unheard just added to the hurt.
At this point, many would have been forgiven for thinking our game was up. But, again, we attacked and managed to force a corner. The corner was played short to Cairney, who found Reed on the edge of the box. Diminutive as he is, he managed to wriggle his way into the box and hook it back to TC. He was then seemingly fouled by Benrahma. A nervous wait then ensued as referee Robert Jones ran to the VAR monitor to take a closer look. Eventually, a penalty kick was awarded to Fulham. Now is not the time to discuss my feelings on VAR – I’m not convinced it’s what our game needs, but when it gives my team a chance to salvage a potentially crucial point with the last kick of a game, you won’t catch me lamenting about it.
On to the penalty itself then. The chances are, if you’re reading this piece and you’ve made it this far, then you know what happened. But for those of you who don’t- Ademola Lookman stepped up and attempted a Panenka (on a good day, a Panenka is a chipped shot straight down the middle of the goal, made to look effortless in execution). It went horrendously wrong, bounced before the goal-line and rolled into the grateful arms of Fabianski.
Of course, I don’t need to tell you how I felt when I saw it unfold. I probably felt the same as you. Some choice words fell out, they always do in situations like these. It’s all well and good criticising Lookman for what happened, but nothing good is going to come from that. Should Mitrovic and Cairney have stepped up? Maybe, but if Lookman felt confident- then why not let him have it? Not many players would have the courage to step up in the circumstances. He has been one of our best performers this season (and will continue to be going forward), is just a young man and it was his first-ever penalty at senior level. Yes, he missed a crucial penalty. Yes, he did so in spectacular fashion. But we are stronger with him than without and it’s important we get behind him because I’m sure he will make it up with some vital performances in the coming months.
I am backing him to be back stronger at home against Everton, a game where we’ll need to be at our best to take 3 points. If recent performances are anything to go by, we should believe we can do just that.