Fulham know more than most clubs that the Premier League is unforgiving. On Saturday, this was reinforced once more as Newcastle punished Nathaniel Chalobah’s over-enthusiasm, that led to the Cottagers’ midfielder dismissed within ten minutes of kick-off.
With first-choice full-backs missing, and Joao Palhinha serving a suspension, Fulham started the game with at least three players who are yet to have worked their way into contention for a starting berth. With Harry Wilson and Manor Solomon still on the injured list, you could increase that number to five. For any team outside of Manchester City this makes life difficult, let alone a team freshly promoted from the Championship.
Therefore, it was of utmost importance that those coming into the team delivered a disciplined performance that didn’t fall too far short of their absent peers. Chalobah did not deliver on this assignment. His reckless, dangerous challenge saw the contest effectively ended in the eighth minute after VAR intervened, upgrading his yellow card to a red. Following his dismal display at Crawley back in August, a game where he was not the only culprit, but certainly a main one, this was an opportunity for the ex-Chelsea and Watford player to prove the naysayers wrong. Many had said in the build-up that he was the most likely candidate to replace the impressive Palhinha, and while he was not expected to match the levels of the Portuguese international, there was a feeling among some that he could cope with the level of opposition when playing with more first-team regulars.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and suggestions were abound at full-time that Tom Cairney should not have been overlooked. However, the data shows that while Cairney provides far more on the ball, Fulham are defensively a more fragile team when he is paired with Harrison Reed in Midfield. Seven goals conceded across a stretch of five Championship matches tells us as much. Fulham were keen to bolster central midfield further at the end of the transfer window, but the priority was wingers for obvious reasons. While Chalobah may not have been the ideal candidate, he was really the most obvious one.
It is difficult to see how his reputation with fans recovers now. Already sceptical, those in the stands have every reason to dismiss him as a viable option in the Fulham midfield. With options limited though, and Palhinha’s tendency to accrue bookings, it may not be long before he is sent on again. Marco Silva clearly values his attributes, and even came to his defence in the press following the game, suggesting that a yellow card would have been punishment enough. Most would struggle to agree with him, but Silva is not the sort of coach to throw his players under the bus. His man-management has been exceptional since arriving at Craven Cottage, and he will need to excel himself again if he is to rebuild Chalobah the way he did Jean Michael Seri, to become a fan favourite.
There is a temptation to dwell on a result like this, and following the pain of previous Premier League campaigns, it would be easy for fans to feel despondent and believe that the positive start will now give way to normal service. But the circumstances around this fixture were not normal. Missing the number of key players Fulham were is a recipe for disaster, and the hope has to be that the absences of Kenny Tete and Antonee Robinson are short-lived. There will also be prayers that Aleksandar Mitrovic was taken off as a precaution, with the game gone. His knock, picked up on international duty, will have many a White holding their breath. A week to recover will hopefully be enough ahead of a trip to East London.
Depth is an interesting conundrum for a club in Fulham’s position. It is clearly a vital component of any squad, but having the requisite quality of back-up is not always possible. Add in the lack of opportunities to keep the replacements match-sharp and you end up with Saturday’s scenes. Layvin Kurzawa has not played competitive football for the best part of a year, while Kevin Mbabu has been reduced to cameo appearances outside of that fateful night in West Sussex. Against battle-hardened Premier League wingers, they were always likely to struggle, even more so when a man short. Losing the aforementioned cup fixture only further reduces the opportunity to keep the squad sharp, and Silva is reticent to make changes to his starting XI when things have been as positive as they were before the recent International break. The medical team will be working overtime to ensure his preferred starters are back for the next fixture.
What is now of paramount importance is that the coming matches do not resemble the results of this stage last season. Following the first international break of 21/22 The Whites lost three of their next six, wining only twice. A similar return this time around would feel like a definitive missed opportunity, with the fixtures on the horizon. Silva must ensure that history is not repeated, either in isolation with regards to the most recent match, or longer term with the upcoming five contests.
There is no time for despair, and Silva will have to pick his team up immediately to continue the march towards Premier League safety. He will also need to find a way to rehabilitate a player with very little credit with fans. He may yet need him.