In the embryonic stages of this season a few names have been on the end of fans and pundits tongues alike. There were questions over the commitment of Aleksandar Mitrovic, answered with two goals in the first three games. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa is yet to start, but has been involved from the bench, while speculation continues over his future at the club. Fabio Carvalho has burst on the the scene, scoring and creating goals. But perhaps the highest level of intrigue has surrounded Jean Micheal Seri, who’s displays in recent trips to Huddersfield and Millwall have fans purring over the prospect of a full season in the Championship, with the man once dubbed the “Ivorian Xavi”, terrorising opposing midfielders by denying them possession and forcing them to chase the ball across the pitch.
In the midst of all of this, one man has been performing excellently, to little fanfare. Josh Onomah finished Fulham’s previous Championship season in fine form. He scored goals, most notably a moment of dribbling wizardry in the first leg of the play-off semi-final against Cardiff, and provided a dynamism to the midfield that wasn’t always present in his absence. But it’s fair to say that the former Spurs player’s first season was one that gathered momentum rather than exploding from the start line. He spent much of his game time under Scott Parker as a No.10, but has been used as more of an 8 under Marco Silva, and it is here that his physical attributes and technical skills appear best suited. He is strong in possession and, as demonstrated in Wales, has the ability to manipulate the ball in tight spaces. In his new role, he has the freedom to get forward, but also offer a short option for defenders as the team attempts to build from the back.
This season he has started exceptionally. In the season opener, even at 24, he was the experienced head in a midfield with two academy products. His stature allowed him to ensure The Whites were not a soft touch for a physical Middlesbrough side. No midfielder on the pitch made more tackles than him (4), and he also bested the midfielders of both sides for both aerial (4) and ground (5) duels. In possession, his forward runs allowed him to create space for, and then lay on an assist for Harry Wilson’s debut goal.
He followed that with an even more impressive display at The John Smith Stadium where he often lead counter attacks and even contributed a goal, with some predatory play at the back-post after Bobby Decordova-Reid flicked on a corner. He had a pass accuracy of 86%, bettered only by Seri and man of the match Decordova-Reid, and once again led the way in successful ground duels and tackles. While his work on the ball is proving very productive, it’s his work out of possession that currently marks him out as a key cog in Silva’s system. While Seri has been very good at retaining possession and helping Fulham to control games with the ball, his tackling and duelling numbers were not as impressive in South Yorkshire, with just the one tackle. For Seri to continue to impact games in the way he has in his last two appearances, he will need physical enforcer alongside him to be truly effective. But Onomah is proving to be more than just a bodyguard for his pass-master partner. From what we have seen thus far under our new head coach, it’s fair to say that Onomah is developing into a complete midfielder.
He only lasted 45 minutes against Millwall and the hope will be that this is not a long term problem. His replacement at The Den was the more than capable Anguissa, but there are parts of Onomah’s game that make him more suited to Silva’s sweeping style than the talented Cameroonian. Fulham have looked at their best this season when moving the ball from back to front at pace, exploiting spaces as opposition defences struggle to reorganise after conceding possession. Where Onomah has adapted better to this than Big Frank, is that he attempts far less dribbles, and moves the ball onto advanced team mates at a faster rate. In the first half against Millwall, Fulham twice ripped through the hosts defence with slick forward passes that led to a goal. There was at least one other occasion that could have provided the same result but for wayward finishing. In the second half, with Anguissa on, Fulham demonstrated arguably more control, at least until Benik Afobe’s slightly fortunate goal, but also less thrust in their attacks. Chances were still created, but players finding space beyond The Lions’ back line was a rarer sight. This could be down to a change in approach from Millwall, who certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed the first period, but also the introduction of Anguissa saw him attempt nearly twice the amount of dribbles (7) as Onomah (4) in their respective 45 minutes. In the most convincing performance so far Fulham attempted 19 dribbles in Huddersfield, but against Millwall this increased to 34 and the result was two fewer “big chances”.
It would be ridiculous to suggest Anguissa enjoyed anything less than a very good 45 minutes against Millwall. All of his numbers were positive, from his pass accuracy (95%) to his successful duels (5/7). He also created a very good scoring opportunity. But his desire to hold on to the ball, despite how good he is at just that, does slow down the vertical progress that we are becoming used to under the new coaching staff. If Anguissa stays, there can be no doubt that he will indeed be a huge asset to The Cottagers, but in the event he leaves, and even if he does stay, the Fulham faithful can rest easy, knowing that Josh Onomah has an integral part to play in what is shaping up to be an exciting season.