In the latest edition of the Collins Column, Jack J Collins looks at why the next four games are absolutely crucial to the Whites, not only just in a results sense, but also in terms of getting performances up to scratch.
The first response I’m going to get to this is that it’s far too early to be making big statements like ‘it’s now or never’ but hear me out first. This isn’t simply a rash throwaway line based on the time of year; but rather one based on the idea that momentum is crucial in this division and that whilst recent results have been excellent, the performances haven’t quite matched up to the three points.
I’m not in any way saying that those points don’t matter, and our recent mini-revival has been exceptionally enjoyable from a supporter’s perspective, especially our smash-and-grab on Pulis at the weekend, but there’s an important case to be made here that the upcoming run of fixtures have the potential to be season-defining.
The next four games that Fulham have are, in order, Burton Albion (H), Barnsley (A), Nottingham Forest (H), and Bolton (A). That is, we play 22nd, 19th, 15th and 21st in quick succession.
Following this run of fixtures, Fulham host Aston Villa, travel to Bristol City, have the league’s runaway leaders visit, and make the trip to Pride Park; before Sheffield United come to town. Or, in terms of comparable positions, 4th, 5th, 1st, 2nd and 6th.
Being perfectly honest, I think we’re capable of getting a couple of results in those games. Usually, the attacking nature of better teams allows Fulham to play to their potential, utilising Slavisa’s expansive attacking style to its brilliant best, but this time there’s a caveat.
Against Boro at the weekend, Fulham weren’t at that brilliant best by any stretch of the imagination, and whilst you can throw all sorts of ‘zero shots on target’ accusations around, the simple truth of the matter is that Fulham were reliant on wasteful Boro finishing and some 50/50 decisions going our way to come out of the Riverside with three points.
I’m absolutely delighted that we did, but ultimately what I’m trying to get at here is that to take points from the big teams, more often than not we’ll have to get ourselves into the next gear, something which ultimately, we’ve struggled with all season. It’s simply not going to be good enough to rely on games like Boro where 9 times out of 10 we would have come away with just a point or even nothing.
That’s the first reason that I feel that these next games, against the teams at the bottom of the table, are absolutely crucial – we need to find our rhythm and groove again before we get into the trickiest run of fixtures of all.
Middlesbrough hasn’t been the only game over this excellent run, results wise, where the final score hasn’t told the whole story. Against Ipswich, Fulham had the lion’s share of possession for the entire game but it wasn’t until the visitors had a man sent off for a ludicrous rush of blood to the head that the domination was converted into tangible results.
Whilst it’s nothing new that Fulham have struggled to break down teams that have come to the Cottage and stuck 10 men behind the ball, it was at this point last year that Fulham dismantled Barnsley and went on a run of seven wins, four draws and a single loss from their next 12 games.
That run was what broached the gap to the playoffs, but what’s different this year is that Fulham don’t have a similar run of ‘easier’ fixtures in order to hit the final straight in top gear. Instead, we have a runway of four games before the Whites come up against their 2018 Everest – those five games against playoff rivals which will ultimately decide this season’s fate.
Complacency then, should be out of the picture. Slavisa’s sides are historically better in the second half of seasons, but at this point last year the performances were gearing up, even if our Christmas period wasn’t numerically as good. What that suggests to me is that things need to markedly improve performance-wise, and these four games represent Fulham’s best opportunity to get the parts oiled for the big finish.
It’s not all about performances though…
There’s also the small matter of goal difference to think about. If you cast your mind back to last season, the reason everyone was so confident at the end of the Brentford game was the fact that Fulham were eight goals clear of Leeds on goal difference, meaning that even a loss at Hillsborough would have been sufficient unless Leeds had managed something no side had managed all season.
It would have been a very different prospect if we had gone into that game with a level goal difference. Not only would it have not been the party at Hillsborough that everyone enjoyed, but it also would have affected the players and the manager – as it was, we were able to enjoy ourselves and let the football do the talking, which it duly did.
As such, these four games represent an opportunity to gain some ground on our fellow playoff contenders. Aston Villa are currently nine goals to the good on Fulham, despite only being five points higher in the table, whilst Leeds and Sheffield United are only one point ahead, but two and three goals better off respectively.
Not only would a sequence of good results help Fulham get their mojo back going into a huge run of playoff six-pointers (Wolves aside), but it would also help Fulham gain ground in an aspect which we’ve already seen can have a huge psychological impact on both players and fans.
As I said last time out, Slavisa deserves plenty of credit for turning things around after a particularly poor period of both tactical and man-management, but his output is now constantly under scrutiny. I, for one, am delighted to have been proved wrong in that he was agile enough to adapt to the situations ahead of him; but I still feel that the big challenge lies ahead.
If Slavisa can successfully negotiate this period of fixtures, coax some assured performances out of this group of players and have Fulham firmly in the playoff places by the time that Aston Villa visit the Cottage on February 17th, I will have every faith that Fulham can push on towards the playoffs and the promised land.