Almost 6 months after an immediate dismissal from the Premier League, the Whites sit seventh in the Championship, a league with which Fulham supporters have become disappointingly familiar.
With 14 of 46 games played, Fulham appear primed for promotion but have clear faults that need fixing. It seems that for each game in which they dominate, there is a mediocre performance consisting of stagnant play and dropped points to go with it – ever so clear with the spineless display against Stoke this past weekend. Nonetheless, only two points separate Fulham from the automatic promotion places.
For most, this would be cause for celebration. However, the Whites are only just starting to emulate the standards they set during their 13-year stay in the Premier League. That stay was substantial enough to convert fans who never dreamed of seeing their small club reach such heights into believers that their team consistently belong amongst England’s top twenty. The support base grew an entire generation of Fulham fans who knew nothing but the top division. The Championship has become a league no longer acceptable for this team – only the world’s most elite competition will do.
Fulham’s (still relatively fresh owners) the Khan’s share this sentiment. In the Summer prior to Fulham’s brief return to the Premier League, they spent upwards of £100 million in a highly unsuccessful effort to improve the team. However, now back in the second tier and having seen the outcome of such hasty efforts, they have decided to take a different route. Loaning in demonstrated talent such as Anthony Knockaert, Ivan Cavaleiro and Bobby Decordova-Reid has lessened the strain on the club’s financials by eliminating hefty transfer fees and no longer committing to unproven players.
Despite this investment in attacking players, it’s the defense that has exceeded expectations. With a run of 3 points out of a possible 12 during August and September, the quality of the players on the pitch appeared little like the talent listed on the team sheet. Without a quick tactical improvement and a bringing together of personalities, this season looked like it was slipping towards disappointment early on.
But it hasn’t come to that. Fundamentals have been restored and a cohesion has been built necessary to conquer the brutal burden that the English Championship presents. This recourse has come straight from the efforts of our new manager and recent midfield general – Scott Parker. While the ability and experience of the squad appears to be enough to return to the top flight, in a league as tough as the Championship, it will be Parker’s tactical implementation, disciplined playing philosophy and charismatic player management that will funnel the abundant quality on his hands back into the Premier League.
What’s more invigorating than a Jurgen Klopp-engulfing hug? A Scott Parker fist in your face. Harry Arter experienced the full force of his manager’s desire against Sheffield Wednesday when his on-field antics quickly became too much. After the Cardiff loanee clamped down on several Wednesday players and worked up a loud home crowd, Parker called over his hard-working midfielder. Most likely expecting a composed word from a usually subdued Parker, Arter must have been taken aback when Parker took a fistful of his jersey, looked him dead in the eye, and demanded that he calm himself.
A spectacle rarely witnessed from a man as calm and collected as Parker, this shot of emotion was just what the Fulham support would have loved to see. Parker’s fistful of jersey is a wonderful display of how the former midfielder regards the seriousness of this job. Parker is determined to bring this team back to the forefront of English football and to do that he will have to excel with the relationships between himself and his players. With a collection of individual stars, creating and maintaining these connections will be imperative. This early season display can be a positive sign that he has the personal touch to do so.
Parker’s recognition of his own failed tactics and restoration of fundamental football will find Fulham success. After the opening day misstep, a 4-0 destruction of Millwall which saw the Whites hold 85 percent possession – an English record – made it look like every team from then on would be cleanly swept aside.
However, between Millwall and Reading, five games passed with only 6 points gained. Arguably worse than the results, Fulham’s play was languid, boring to watch, but most criminal: timid. Center-backs Tim Ream and Alfie Mawson completed upwards of 50 passes per game just between each other; keeping the ball became less about breaking down the opponent and more about reaching a high score.
This string of underwhelming displays necessitated a tactical intervention that Parker was willing to lead. A 4-1 destruction of Reading and the second half of a 2-2 draw with Charlton saw the White’s exhibit a tactical mastery that allowed each player to capitalize on their strengths. Against Charlton, Parker reversed his inverted winger’s positions, leading to more crosses earlier in possessions. This allowed Mitrovic to make a much greater impact on the game, including scoring the team’s second equalizer. Most importantly though, parker told his side to have fun. It’s ok to lose the ball – make runs, play a killer pass, trust your execution and trust your defense to win the ball back for you. Parker has done what few other managers have had the humility to do – to admit fault and correct one’s own mistakes.
With the Whites sporting a front five that rivals Premier League sides and a so-far solid back line, Parker’s task of gaining promotion sounds easier than what other managers have on their plate – just let the boys play, and they’ll be good enough to get the job done, right? Wrong. Very wrong. Last weekend’s Stoke matchup proves exactly that. The pressure will continue to build as the season progresses, testing his discipline and ability to keep his relationships with his players as tight as possible. In the coming weeks we will see if Parker has what it takes to lead his team to the highest league in the land. My bet – he does.