Limbs. We knew before kick-off that a victory against Huddersfield Town was compulsory and we reached our primary objective at the death. Drama. It wasn’t our finest performance whatsoever, that’s for certain, although when there’s so much at stake, with both camps scrapping for the spoils, sometimes you have to win ugly, really ugly.
We’re not going to claw our way out of the drop zone by playing captivating, expansive football. We can try, but when you’re involved in a cutthroat dog fight, as it proved on Saturday, we’re not going to be granted the time, space and respect to express ourselves without being relentlessly jabbed and prodded in return.
Three points. That’s all that matters. Our triumph over the Terriers has drastically altered the narrative of this article, so count yourselves eternally lucky for that. Arsenal, wounded and fragile, are next up in the congested domestic schedule for the Whites on New Year’s Day. Be brave, bold, and ruthless. Let’s make 2019 a deeply progressive year where we thrive in the Premier League, not the Championship.
Feeble First-Half Faux-Pas
Where to start. The tie exploded into life after the interval down by the river, but the opening 45 minutes were utterly atrocious. Uninspired, flat, disjointed, Huddersfield dictated proceedings whilst the Whites ambled across the park in their wake. Sluggish, lethargic, sedated, we can’t continue to invite the opposition into the match from the off like we did against the Terriers. Teams with teeth will maul us before we’ve even projected a yelp.
Outfought and tentative, Fulham were hemmed back into their own half by Alex Pritchard, who pestered our defensive unit alongside wide components Chris Lowe and Erik Durm. Frantically staving off the Terriers’ pressure, Aleksandar Mitrovic was stranded in the final third as we couldn’t split out of our own quarters swiftly enough to accommodate and recognise the Serb’s lone presence. We were coaxed into lumping long, hopeless balls to relinquish danger and we couldn’t devise meaningful phases and combinations whilst in possession. Huddersfield methodically nullified and contained us, but to our relief, we remained composed and diligent defensively.
Huddersfield engineered from central areas and perpetually pressed the Whites. Jonathan Hogg and Florent Hadergjonaj hassled Jean-Micheal Seri and Calum Chambers, but Philip Billing was the predominant antagonist. The top-flight’s tallest player, Billing won every aerial duel that floated his way and was a relentless driving force. Operating unopposed, the Danish enforcer trundled through the midfield department freely and systematically.
David Wagner’s men may not have capitalised on their dominance, but they were comfortable, assured and had a sturdy platform to mount wave after wave of attacks from. The visitors had only managed to muster 12 goals this season, a shoddy record indeed, but we’re one squad that regularly hands struggling folds a crucial lifeline. If Steve Mounie could have diverted his towering header past Sergio Rico, for example, the game’s complexion would have diversified and we would have been kicking ourselves in retaliation. After the break, we required a hardened reaction.
More Joy For Odoi
As part of a back three, Denis Odoi is our most competent centre-half, and it’s not just his defensive work that caught the eye against the Terriers. In what was a dire first-half, Odoi was a glistening beacon for the Whites and oozed class and confidence with the ball at his feet. The Belgian is a credit to our system, and though he’s prone to the odd spasmodic mistake, he conducted himself to the highest degree at Craven Cottage.
The 30-year-old trusts his technical ability and showcased his resourceful dexterity on a number of differing occasions. I’ve winced in the past when Odoi’s opted to glide out of his department with the ball, but I was inclined to applaud nearly every touch the diminutive defender registered, as he slalomed his way out of tight, perilous areas like a seasoned master of his profession. Venturing into midfield zones, Odoi committed his markers and prised pockets for his creative teammates to inhabit.
Stamping his authority upon the game was critical. Lowe endeavoured to compromise the right side of our rearguard, but Odoi was always primed to stunt the German. Odoi shadowed his opponents with an astute focus and detained both Lowe and Pritchard accordingly. Culprit to launching into challenges, the adaptable conservator left no prisoners and brutalised. Despite a cautionary yellow, Odoi showcased a driven, barbarous philosophy: let them know you’re there and rattle their cages.
Faced with one of the division’s most physical, burly strike forces, Odoi would have been pinpointed as a weak link in Fulham’s defence due to his lesser frame, but the miniature despot dealt with Huddersfield’s imposing stature valiantly. Barrelling into headers which he genuinely shouldn’t even contest, Grappling with men that are basically twice his size, anticipating and extinguishing danger before it’s apparent, Odoi was unrivalled and magnificent.
Cairney’s Central Clarity
Claudio Ranieri’s experimentation has outcast Tom Cairney from his usual role in the spine of the formation, with the Italian boss deploying the skipper on the right of the offensive trident. In the second-half, TC was drafted into the middle from a wider position to partner Chambers and Fulham subsequently transformed into a cohesive, pragmatic collective.
Cairney was alienated in the first-half and couldn’t locate Mitrovic or indeed establish himself upon proceedings on the right of the front three. The Scotland international’s initial touches were laboured and wayward and he simply doesn’t harbour the searing pace that’s necessary to venture the flanks and manipulate the opposition. Stressed in our previous edition, Cairney must, at all costs, operate in the heart of the midfield.
Aboubakar Kamara entered at at the break in place of Seri, a switch that enabled Cairney to fill the Ivorian’s void. A mediator between midfield and attack, Cairney rotated the ball proficiently and calibrated the game’s tempo. Shrewdly conducting play with Chambers, the enigmatic craftsman stitched sequences together, rallied the troops, and effortlessly remapped the underlying fabric of the confrontation. He’s an incisive tool that has to supply the offensive armoury with ammunition. He did so in the build up to the winner. Obtaining the ball after Billing’s wild thrash, TC sparked an electrifying counter attack with a cultured half-volley on the parameter of our 18-yard box. Primal instinct personified.
In essence, Cairney’s standing in the starting XI is still an uncertainty and I believe that Ranieri will favour Seri over TC in terms of central selections, but it’s a strangely welcome dilemma. The understanding Cairney shares with his teammates is paramount, he’s a significant metronome and a peerless guardian of possession, that is without question or doubt. His leadership and standing still splits opinion, but as he was last season in our promotion push, he is elemental to our survival campaign and his contributions will remain vital and cardinal.
Relishing Sess’ Integrity
I’ll broadcast this time and time again, but Ryan Sessegnon has to start. Discarded against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Huddersfield, Sess’ came off the bench in both meetings and instantaneously altered proceedings in Fulham’s favour. He may be an unbelievable impact player, it’s been proven, but his willingness and desire to hurt defences is an aptitude that has to be trusted from the referee’s opening whilst.
The 18-year-old’s physicality has been pinpointed as a hindrance of late, with Ranieri stating that the England U21 international has to bulk up, but what does Luciano Vietto offer that Sess’ doesn’t? The Argentine is desperately lightweight and was shrugged off the ball whilst attempting to shield, and in the 77th minute, the Atletico Madrid loanee was hauled off for the eager teenager.
Lacking objective and intensity in the first-half, Sess’ expressed his offensive and defensive qualities supremely and was a regular springboard during our attacks, which grew more frequent towards the latter stages of the match. Hugging the touchline and sucking opponents out of their comfort zones, Sess’ dismantled the Terriers’ shape and scrambled their momentum. An illusive technician, the fledgling prodigy’s superiority at a tender, impressionable age, shone through.
Last chance saloon and an opportunity to floor Huddersfield arose following Cairney’s expertly-weighted chop. Collecting the ball on the halfway line, Sess’ galloped onward and was bearing down on the target. Mitrovic and Sess’ share an uncanny telepathy, a supreme connection that could dissect warfare strategics, and as the strapping Serb pierced the Terriers’ defensive line, devastation was imminent. That is exactly why Sessegnon is integral. We are genuinely witnessing a future figurehead of the modern game defy typical expectation before our very eyes.
Man of the Moment Mitro
Quarantined and isolated, Mitrovic’s frustration was clear to see in the opening 45. No matter how hard, how dauntlessly the 24-year-old fought for the ball, his staunch efforts were in vain. Vietto and Cairney were not sufficiently supporting the deadly hit-man and his patience was running thin. However it was simply a tale of two halves in every plausible respect.
Fulham examined the flanks after the interval and could have landed the game’s first blow in the 62nd minute. Tim Ream located Joe Bryan on the left side and the full-back arced an exquisite ball into Mitro’s domain. Reading the ball’s flight, the lethal marksman butted the ball goal bound with complete precision, but Jonas Lossl pulled off a tremendous save to ensure that his team remained relevant in the encounter.
I don’t want to draw too much emphasis on the penalty debacle, but Mitro’ showed a grace and maturity to ignore Kamara’s unwarranted petulance. Planting a kiss on the unruly Frenchman, Mitro’ accepted that he was not going to yank the ball from his colleagues clasp and watched AK tamely stroke the ball at the target. He did signal his discontent towards Ranieri during the embarrassingly adolescent fracas, but he’s ultimately experienced enough to know that enemies shouldn’t lie within your own club. AK47 acknowledged his misdemeanour and duly apologised, so all is forgiven and forgotten.
We’ve watched the fabled goal on a constant loop for days now but golly, what a breathtaking moment of elation that was. Synchronised with Sess’, Mitro’ stole a march on Mathias Jorgensen and sensed a vulnerability in Huddersfield’s rearguard. Setting his sights and steadying his stride, Mitro’ fired venomously and threaded the ball through Lossl’s legs. Within a split second, CC erupted into pandemonium. With Sess’ hoisted upon his back, Mitro’ soaked up the unbridled jubilation with the faithful in the Hammersmith End, a sight that will live long in the memory. He may not don the armband, but the impassioned attacker is undoubtedly our deserved captain, chieftain and saviour.