Versatility can be both a gift and a curse for a professional footballer. It remains to be seen which it will prove to be for Bobby Decordova-Reid in his Fulham career. Since joining the club in the 2019 summer transfer window, the former Cardiff City player has fulfilled a litany of roles in Scott Parker’s line up. His best position is still up for debate, but one thing that appears clear is that he has the trust of his head coach wherever he is deployed.
“Bobby” has been the answer to many a question the squad has posed to Parker during his time in charge of first team affairs. Across his appearances in the Championship, Decordova-Reid was predominantly used centrally as an attacking midfielder or as second striker when Fulham were chasing games. He also made a number of appearances on the left of the front-three, and a couple of his games came on the right-hand side.
Technically capable and a proven goal threat, it is easy to see why any manager would try to find a place in their team for a player like the Bristol City product. He contributes to the team selflessly, but his goal return across his time at the club perhaps hasn’t been as fruitful as fans would have hoped, despite currently leading the clubs scoring charts with three goals on our return to the Premier League.
Which makes his recent sojourn into a back five even more surprising. The previous two games have seen Parker deploy a tactic that requires our current top scorer to prioritise defensive duties over the course of 90 minutes. It has paid off too. Against Leicester Decordova-Reid effectively nullified the threat of their overlapping wing-back Christian Fuchs, while still finding the energy and ability to get into the opposition box and win the decisive penalty. When Harvey Barnes was introduced in the second half, Decordova-Reid was just as effective at preventing him from causing problems in wide areas.
That Parker turned to Decordova-Reid to step into his latest role, after his defensive awareness failed to deal with the problems caused by Lucas Digne of Everton, one week before the triumph at the King Power Stadium, was unexpected. All three goals were conceded down the right flank, and his understanding with Ola Aina, when out of possession, left a lot to be desired. But to the credit of Parker and his coaching staff, they spotted the flaws and addressed them in the intervening period.
Despite falling to a 2-0 defeat against Manchester City, that the score line was kept respectable is strong evidence that Fulham’s defensive resolve has grown significantly stronger, and Decordova-Reid’s discipline has been a significant part of that in the last two outings. It is unclear how long this new position will be the norm, and it may not be long before Parker calls on his utility man to play further up the field once again.
The latest run of games was always going to be a case of trying to remain competitive, but ultimately avoid results that could impact on the teams confidence in a negative manner. The result at Eastlands was representative of that outlook, and Liverpool’s upcoming visit will likely mean a similar approach. But, beyond that, Fulham will head into games in which the priorities will be different, and it is likely that will mean another move for the adaptable Jamaican international.
Parker’s recent willingness to experiment with a mobile front two could also be good news for Decordova-Reid’s appearance bonus. His scoring record this season makes him a prime candidate for a role in the attack, whatever formation The Cottagers line up in, and his willingness to do his boss’s bidding in any area of the pitch will likely be rewarded even if, as expected, Fulham’s tactical approach becomes a little more adventurous as the month continues.
The combination play on show with Aleksandar Mitrovic against West Brom, in our maiden win of the season, could also lead to a return to familiar positions for both players. Mitro started the previous two fixtures in the unfamiliar settings of the substitutes bench, as Parker opted for players more capable of sprinting a counter-attack. It was after that West Brom game that Parker would go on to praise Decordova-Reid’s attacking instincts saying “I think his biggest attribute is that he’s a goal threat” suggesting that his long-term future lies closer to the opposition goal than his own. Although, even when playing as a forward, his touch maps show a versatility and comfort in all areas of the pitch. He is just as likely to pop up in a central area as he is a wide one, and is not one to shy away from tracking back into his own defensive third.
Kenny Tete’s progress toward a competitive return may lessen the requirement for Decordova-Reid to “do a job”. His original position as a central midfielder is likely no longer an option, with the quality the squad is currently blessed with in that area. But, as a forward playing off of Mitrovic, he has the attributes to be a dangerous weapon. He is already closing in on the tally of five goals he scored the last time he played at this level, with previous employers Cardiff, with more than two thirds of the season remaining.
But if the Whites stay up, as they have shown the ability to do in recent weeks, upgrades will be expected as the club looks to re-establish itself in the top flight, as it did between 2001 and 2014. In that moment, will the hierarchy settle for an all-in-one model, or look to specialists with a proven track record? At this point, Decordova-Reid’s versatility may become a curse. In the era of seven substitutes, the need for a utility man could be argued to have lessened. But there are players who have done very well with a career of flexibility. James Milner springs to mind. But the Swiss army player is a somewhat lesser seen component in the modern game.
Parker’s faith in Decordova-Reid has been well placed this season and his ability to mould himself to the role required has proven valuable in securing an unexpected, but very much welcomed, three points on the road. It is clear that the flexible forward has a key part to play over the course of the season. But exactly what that role is, may continue to change as regularly as the opposition does.