Player Focus: Ivan Cavaleiro

Image: Fulham FC

If the 21st August 2019 was the peak of Parkerball, then it can be argued that it is also the zenith of Ivan Cavaleiro in a Fulham shirt…

Fulham enjoyed 84% possession and broke the record for successful passes since the the recording of such stats began. The 4-0 win over Millwall may be the most enjoyable game of football I have watched. The lack of any real pressure, and the way in which we controlled the game from start to finish, made it possible to just sit back and appreciate the performance. Cavaleiro stood out on this night, scoring two goals and delivering the final ball of a mesmerising 26-pass move that resulted in Anthony Knockaert’s first Fulham goal.

Like Knockaert, Cavaleiro came with a track record of performing in the Championship and experience of Premier League football. It seemed like intelligent business to bring him on board and the inclusion of an option to make his initial loan permanent was welcomed after the Ollie Norwood experience.

The fan base was almost unanimous in their excitement when his signing was announced last summer. An exciting winger with the ability to beat his marker, deliver crosses – and he demonstrated both on that memorable night at the Cottage and the week before against Huddersfield – and the ability to drift in from the left-hand side and unleash a finish that is equal parts beautiful and ferocious.

He also gave a glimpse at another of his talents as Millwall were humbled. Drifting infield and then beyond our front man, and opposition defence, plucking a measured ball over the top from Tom Cairney before rounding the keeper and finishing with the confidence of a Championship winner, as he was with Wolves two seasons previous.

In the 14 months that have followed there have been flashes of brilliance, with the equaliser against Charlton and the winner at Hull serving as reminders of the quality the Portuguese possesses. But these have been fleeting and since the turn of the year, Cavaleiro has not been the player that we had hoped he would be. Such a winger thrives in one-on-one situations. Using their trickery to confuse defenders before creating an opportunity for themselves or a team mate.

His pace allows him to relieve pressure as a hastily picked-out man who can dribble into the attacking half, and can also apply it to the opposition in a way that leads to goals, like Aboubakar Kamara’s late sealer when Preston North End visited the SW6. But the slower possession-based style implemented under the current leadership allows defenders to limit his opportunities to utilise these strengths. Defenders can get back behind the ball and flood the central area’s into which he would like to travel with the ball at his feet.

Cavaleiro, for his part, has not adapted well. Watching him against Sheffield United, I saw a player lacking in confidence. One who didn’t trust his ability to take on a defender and so rushed the pass. It’s safe to say it hasn’t worked out the way we had hoped. The excitement and dominance displayed against Millwall gave way to the trials and tribulations of Barnsley at home and Stoke away before we even got to the Premier League.

Interestingly, the almost foreign concept of counter-attacking football witnessed at Bramall Lane is exactly what Cavaleiro contributed to so well at Wolves. But having been void of the experience for a year, he seems to have forgotten how to complete the process. Despite a lack of success, it was encouraging to see him providing an option as Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Ruben Loftus-Cheek carried the ball into opposition territory.

Cavaleiro looked like a player that could provide some use in the role he fulfilled against The Blades, dropping back to supplement the defence when out of possession, but on-hand to contribute to the counter attacks that presented themselves as the game progressed. The debate after the game centred on whether there was another player we could deploy to better execute Cavaleiro’s role. Most people I spoke to suggested that probably wasn’t the case with the current options, and so it was a genuine surprise to see him omitted from the match-day squad selected to take on Crystal Palace in the following fixture. Would more game time in such a system resurrect the Cavaleiro of old? It’s impossible to say, but I would suggest that the alternative didn’t provide much encouragement either.

The way a team, and its players, perform on a match day is a reflection of the work done consistently on the training ground. It’s been clear for a while now that very little is done to promote fast breaks. Scott Minto and Co. used a league table of sorts to point this out to us on numerous occasions in the build-up to the Play-Off Final. And yet we’ve shown ourselves to have players capable of performing in such a way. It was apparent at Bramall Land, and Joe Bryan’s second goal at Wembley is a prime example. Cavaleiro was heavily involved in that one.

We know that Cavaleiro is not a bad player. The recent evidence doesn’t help to make that argument but there is plenty of previous to back up that assertion. The question that both fans – and more pressingly, Scott Parker – should be asking is what can be done to unlock the quality that prompted such excitement when we first saw him holding a Fulham shirt bearing his name at Motspur Park?