After four games under Ranieri, we had made encouraging strides against Saints and Leicester whilst being outclassed in difficult trips to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. Saturday’s home game against West Ham offered the possibility of another game against a team outside the big six at home to kick off up the league. With the results from earlier on Saturday meaning we had the chance to not only jump off the bottom of the table but out of the bottom three entirely – the game had the possibility to gain an important psychological boost and show signs of progress up the league.
What followed was eerily similar to the games earlier in the season under Slav, promising attacking play without taking some very good opportunities and then conceding as soon as the opposition get one chance at our end. The first 15 minutes really were positive, with a noticeable focus on pressing the West Ham back four and trying to get the ball forward quickly into a front two of Kamara and Mitrovic. But the moment Kamara went clear in front of the Hammersmith End I can’t have been the only one thinking he wasn’t going to finish it. As soon as Fabianski tipped his shot wide it was difficult to feel anything other than a creeping sense of inevitability of what would happen next. Thanks to great work from Felipe Anderson and a classy finish from Snodgrass – we didn’t have to wonder anymore.
It’s hard to single out one particular issue this team has because there are frankly too many to choose from. But the one that is the most crushing psychologically is the fact we have so many chances to score and don’t take them and the other team – whoever it is – needs one. From the reaction of the players after the first goal, it looks like it’s an emotion that isn’t unique to the fans. To start so brightly against a team in good form only to have that start snatched away from you can’t be easy to process. The rest of the first half continued in similar fashion with a host of opportunities for Kamara and Mitrovic to score but just not having the luck or quality to do it. And then it happened again. A cross from Anderson on the left sailed over the entire Fulham defence for an unmarked Michael Antonio to slide the ball under Sergio Rico from inside the area, forcing Fulham fans to endure another Away End having a great time at the Cottage.
For all the mentions of the strikers failing to convert solid opportunities, the defence needs to take a serious look at themselves for another faltering performance. We can all see it, and as professionals, they must be aware that it’s going wrong, but the inability to change it is the worst aspect of the whole situation. The decision making both individually and as a collective was consistent, however, unfortunately not in any way resembling a positive sense. Odoi went in and got beaten by Anderson for the first goal and then left him all the time and space a winger could dream of to put the ball toward the back post for the second. Odoi made two horrible mistakes – and looked far better when restored to centre back – but once again he wasn’t the only one in the back line to be guilty of positional mistakes. Ream and Mawson didn’t pick up a player for Antonio’s goal and I still haven’t seen a reply after the game that shows where Joe Bryan was. Bryan was one of the best attacking left backs in the Championship last season but so far for Fulham, it looks like the defending isn’t there to match it. The switch out to Snodgrass and Zabaleta was on every single time West Ham attacked us and at points, I genuinely didn’t know where he was on the pitch.
It feels harsh to be judging players in these terms and it isn’t enjoyable to write a piece after taking another beating in exactly the same manner that we have done all season. The fans are hurting, and despite what some people will think, I’m sure that the players will be too. The attitude of the team in the second half wasn’t great and there was never a time where we looked like even grabbing a goal to set up a nervy last few minutes. But the tactical changes from Ranieri had a detrimental impact on the performance of the team. Judging by the noise from the fans, a lot of people were happy to see Johansen on for Seri and Kebano on for Schurrle and I get that there is always a loyalty to players who have performed well for us in the past. But set aside how you feel about these players and objectively we got worse, particularly after Seri was taken off, as we lost the ability to control the ball in midfield. To be generous to Ranieri it may have been that he wants to rest players for the upcoming schedule but the changes didn’t seem to be those of a manager who thought the game was still there to be won.
Maybe it was the weather but the worrying levels of apathy in the ground during the second half and after the game is a definite concern. It doesn’t seem to have filtered through to the players yet but if they continue to feel like everything is going against them it might not be long. To have had as horrendous a season as we have would normally see a side doomed at this point of a league campaign in the top flight – however, the fact that it isn’t is an indictment of the power of the big six and the lack of quality in the bottom half of the table. The next three games were huge already, but anything less than 6 points and I don’t think even at this stage we have a realistic possibility of survival.