Ah, disappointment, you weren’t gone for long. Sammy James called it before the international break, Fulham’s deflating 2-0 loss against Stoke City was written on the walls, right from the moment the season’s schedule was released. That has to be the most Championship result you could ever get. Bottom of the league, bereft of confidence, smash and grab another victory from a promotion hopeful.
Nathan Jones should have been sacked weeks ago but, to his credit, the Potters have seemingly turned a corner. Stoke are a wounded animal and we encountered them at the wrong time. They are not basement dwellers and a purple patch was long overdue. A defeat, like it or not, was tattooed all over matchday 12.
As ever, in the only way we know how as plucky Fulham fans, we go again on Wednesday. What’s done is done and now we have Luton Town to focus on, another gruelling, exhilarating meeting in England’s thrilling second division. 10th, 6 points off top. Still a contender, still relevant, still the super shaggin’ Whites.
Formation Foils Fulham
I’m a strong believer in Scott Parker’s coaching intelligence but that formation, approach and strategy was dragged straight from Felix Magath’s school of hideous procedures. There was a grave lack of respect shown in Fulham’s lopsided shape, a complacency that was shredded by a buoyant Stoke City, a side that were clearly roused after beating Swansea City in South Wales before the international break. Scotty, your decisions were naive and ignorant.
Since when was a trip to the Bet365 Stadium a routine outing? Three points – let alone any amount of joy whatsoever – are never guaranteed. Bottom of the standings or not, never take Stoke lightly. The Potters were miserly, vastly uninspired, but they rallied and struck with ruthless ramifications, dismembering the Whites’ thin, insufficient defensive cover. Route one, that’s all it took to bypass Fulham’s makeshift central partnership of Alfie Mawson, Tim Ream and Joe Bryan.
Even with Harrison Reed and Harry Arter sat directly in front, far too much pressure and onus was placed on the back three. Immobile, tactless, ill-equipped, Stoke City utilised their commonplace long ball game expertly. Clearing their lines, aiming for wide quadrants with acres to traverse, Stoke targeted Mawson’s lethargic turn of pace along the right and preyed upon Bryan’s aerial impotence along the left. Mawson, sitting between the two, stood statuesque and was spun into the upside down by a marauding Peter Etebo. In essence, balance and stability was absent in Fulham’s line up, and if we’re to bounce back immediately, the debilitating 3-5-2 formation has to be scrapped and destroyed with fire.
Bryan, Beyond Baffled
Elaborating further on the opening point, Bryan, for obvious, fundamental reasons, is not a central defender and he never will be. Perhaps our most positive, creative offensive outlet, deploying the natural left-back within a back three is simply beyond plausible comprehension. Experimenting is perfectly fine if it makes credible sense, but stationing Bryan in that capacity was completely baffling. If Bryan was to compete and contest against Lee Gregory’s and Tyrese Campbell’s height advantage, stilts would have been necessary.
A flagrant mismatch of stature and physicality, Stoke’s 16th-minute opener was engineered by Gregory, who towered above Bryan to glance into Campbell’s path. The hosts hoisted long balls in Bryan’s direction because they knew he wouldn’t be able to challenge them. He was powerless. We’ve seen Denis Odoi compliment the heart of a back four in the past, but Bryan is not a utility man, like the Belgian is. On the flanks, the 26-year-old’s electrifying. In an alien, irregular position such as on the left of a sitting trio, he’s a fish out of water.
Fulham spent the majority of the game camped in Stoke’s half and with Bryan involved in various sequences, the Whites had an impetus. In the middle of the park, Bryan would collect possession and spread play from wing to wing, acting as an auxiliary playmaker. Shifting the ball methodically, Bryan also grazed the crossbar with a sumptuous missile from 30 yards, emphasising the threat and productivity within his refined left boot. Bryan, typically, winched 7 crosses into the penalty area, and whilst nothing solid surfaced from his resourceful enterprise, that’s what the intrepid fullback should be doing on a scheduled basis without delay along his familiar touchline. We can’t afford to sacrifice his productivity.
Arter’s Atrocious Attitude
I’ve got to air my frustrations. I am not a fan of Harry Arter at the moment at all. Week after week, no matter who we face, the Republic of Ireland international paints an extremely petulant picture of what a seasoned, qualified professional should be. His sudden outbursts are tiresome, his temperament is atrocious and his disciplinary threshold is non-existent. He is the antithesis of a true passion merchant. If anything, he’s nothing more than a hindrance with a malicious, dishonourable streak.
It’s a crying shame that my opinion of Arter’s been soured, but if I were playing alongside him, I’d have wobbled his head a very, very long time ago. The 29-year-old is an immensely talented midfielder, capable of altering encounters in a split second, but he allowed Badou Ndiaye to scramble his composure, his decency, and before he was ejected from proceedings due to a suspected injury, you could hear his blood boiling. Parker has a vexatious dilemma on his hands with his narky brother-in-law and I, for one, am calling for a long-winded family intervention, because something’s not right with him.
Fizzing with the right kind of energy, Arter is a welcome contributor within our midfield ranks. I’m not entirely writing him off or discrediting his integrity, although his afternoon in Staffordshire was mediocre at best. When Fulham needed to intensify the tempo, Arter staggered on the ball, stemming the flow of the game, smothering momentum in the process. Accompanied by erratic, misplaced passes, the midfield meddler curtailed progressive sequences of possession, and whilst he stung Adam Federici’s palms with a venomous drive, he was undoubtedly out of his depth. To conclude, I’ll take Stefan Johansen over the tetchy Sidcup-born Irishman any day, hands down, without hesitation.
Bettinelli’s Banana Boots
Marcus Bettinelli did his best Steven Gerrard impersonation on Stoke’s slick, unforgiving surface and Campbell, like Demba Ba at Anfield, pounced to stroke past our flimsy-footed ‘keeper. A good workman should never blame his tools, but when your studs are as practical as high school loathers on black ice, you’ve got to give Pro Direct a visit, Betts. Bin the banana boots. If he had a steady footing on the turf, he could have closed the gap between Campbell and the bottom left corner, but that hapless stumble gift wrapped Stoke a surefire opportunity to plant an opportunistic jab right on the kisser.
There’s always cause for debate where Betts is concerned. Dubious of his ability, the 27-year-old stopper atoned for his calamitous error by clawing Joe Allen’s sculpted strike away from the target. A save of supreme quality to deny Stoke’s skipper a certain goal. Betts banana skinned yet again when Campbell was threaded through in the 31st minute, but this time, he did just enough to impede the striker’s prodded effort. Fulham pressed for an equaliser and Betts, when called upon, intercepted looping crosses and swatted bothersome corners out of perilous areas, although as we’ve already discovered, he has an uncanny knack of tarnishing his performances with irrational, misjudged impulses.
Streaming into the penalty area, Scott Hogan was actually striding away from the target when Betts launched himself at the attacker’s feet. Tim Ream was also on hand on the goal line if needed, so the stopper’s illogical lunge genuinely wasn’t warranted. In the heat of the moment, though, I’m sure alarm bells were ringing, but if Hogan had continued without being felled, I’m sure he would have blasted the ball into the terraces. If Betts had stayed on his feet, he could have screened the former Brentford man away from the target, but I understand his prerogative as a ‘keeper. He was always going to commit and run the risk of conceding an avoidable penalty.
Shoot, Strike, Squander
We can spend all day pointing fingers at our defence for having the same consistency as a wet paper bag that’s been pummelled to a pulp by Mike Tyson, but we also have to berate our attack for not converting the clear cut opportunities they had to cancel out and relinquish Stoke’s stubborn grip on proceedings. Complacency reared its ugly head quite a lot on Saturday, as there was very little conviction with the back of the net in our sights. Smacked of Barnsley away on the opening day, that.
Bobby Reid, bless him, couldn’t buy a goal if there was an 80% sale on. Pinpointed by Ivan Cavaleiro, the unmarked 26-year-old could have set himself before dispatching, but with basically the entire target at his mercy, an instantaneous header was elected. Butting the ball down Federici’s throat from 6 yards, Fulham’s faithful were in a state of disbelief. Arter let fly, Bryan cannoned from long range but Stoke’s sheet remained clean. How Cav’s 39th-minute cutback dribbled wide by a whisker, we’ll never know. From that moment onward, that hollow feeling in your stomach meant that it wasn’t going to be our day.
Wave after wave of unrelenting pressure ensued, but Stoke clung on to compound Fulham’s anguish. In the form of his career, you’d have placed your house on Aleksandar Mitrovic scoring in the 87th minute. Tom Cairney floated a tantalising cross inbound and Mitro’ sprung to meet it. Readying himself to pick the ball up from inside the frame, Federici’s luck was in as he clutched the Serb’s resulting header. One of the hottest hitmen in Europe, doused by a vigilant 34-year-old Australian. If only Jack Butland were between the sticks. We would have run amok.