Five Thoughts: Fulham 1-2 Reading

Cameron Ramsey 2nd January 2020
© Dara Curran

Another avoidable bump in the road, smashed head on by Scott Parker’s incompatible Fulham banter bus. Nursing a ranging hangover from the wholehearted celebrations the night before, trust it to be Fulham that bring you back down to earth with a bucket of cold water and a hefty slap in the gob. Also, Mark Bowen is a top notch prat, just saying.

A depleted squad? Maybe, but we’ve apparently got the depth and desire within us but, clearly, we’re not as well-founded as we think. That’s a 4th loss at home this term, against an average opponent that was merely on a commonplace winning streak. Our defeat against Bristol City was identical, so this was not a one-off. Lion’s share of possession, camped in the Royals’ half and our pants still wound up round our ankles.

So, Aston Villa are next in the FA Cup, joy of joys but, if anything, at least it’s an opportunity for our fringe players to get a well-deserved run around. Neeskens Kebano, Steven Sessegnon, Ibrahima Cisse, the myth himself, I’m looking at you to shake things up. 5 Thoughts is usually reserved for Championship matches only, although I can’t wait to talk about Villa’s 30,000 following in a stadium that can currently only hold around 15,000-or-so. Ahhhh, the compelling magic of the cup!

Susceptible Single Setting

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Parker’s men have only have one accessible setting and it’s susceptible, repetitive and predictable. Monopolising possession should be nothing more than a bonus for actually dominating games, which we simply can’t do because we’re far too tentative when building offensive patterns. Reading set up two banks of four and absorbed Fulham’s beleaguered passing sequences. Crabbing side to side doesn’t get you anywhere very fast and it certainly didn’t trouble the Royals. Our passing phases resemble an elementary training drill and that’s how teams interpret our foreseeable approach as well. Sammy’s right, all Fulham seem to do is build you up, bursting with optimism, only to let you down with some of the most inane football we’ve seen.

Even with the raw power of Aboubakar Kamara, the ingenuity of Bobby Decordova-Reid and the brutalising, chart-topping strength of Aleksandar Mitrovic on the turf, we still couldn’t dismantle the Royals’ defensive line, no matter how many times we came back to try our luck again. It doesn’t compute, it’s unfathomable and to be absolutely honest, it’s embarrassing. Our firepower and creativity makes others drool in envy, it’s undeniably the deadliest, but the disinclined manner in which we construct and execute our opportunities, there’s newborn babies out there with more bite and purchase. We let an elderly throwback with a face like a charred shop-bought pizza compound our misery, a bloke that quite literally tried to score from 50 yards because he’s still living in 2015 and you know what? We deserved it. Charlie Adam, the Scottish Andreas Iniesta with Doritos for teeth.

We have no alternative solution, no surrogate to our passive method and with all the ability we have in our ranks, it really is inexcusable. We didn’t even play that badly at all, there’s just no substance, no structure and no variant whatsoever. Clever interchanges between BDR and Knockaert, we could marvel at it all afternoon but it didn’t amount to anything. Maintaining a high press, it examined Reading’s composure but they soon wormed their way out of trouble. Aleksandar Mitrovic drifting out to the channels, he’ll hold the moon if gravity didn’t exist, but we need him in the penalty area to convert, not invent. We scuttled down blind alleys continuously from central positions, we resorted to desperate long balls when the entire XI stood statuesque and we practised the same foiled formula repeatedly. Somebody on that pitch has to take charge, freshen our obsolete procedure, because whatever Parker’s barking from the touchline, it clearly isn’t working.

Prospect’s Positive Performance

Thrown into the fray for a crocked Harrison Reed in the 17th minute, aspiring youth prospect Matt O’Riley’s introduction to first-team football was an baptism of fire to say the least – given the sheer weight of expectation and the demanding circumstances, but he performed superbly. Shepherding possession sensibly and supporting both attack and defence simultaneously, the 19-year-old novice bared the fundamental hallmarks any aspiring wannabe should, and if I were to nominate anybody for our respective Man of the Match, it would be the U23 graduate indefinitely.

Now, I’m not entirely discarding his role in Reading’s second goal but he wasn’t at fault, not really at all. He did lose possession cheaply, granted, but it was a collective comedy of errors that held the door open for the visitors to dance through unscathed. Otherwise, I was pleasantly surprised, enlightened, to how composed and assured he was, and that’s what I’ll take from his debut in the Championship. He was a little brittle in 50/50s, a shade naive when closing space, but he kept the ball moving and tried to unpick Reading’s stringent shape.

Harrsion Reed established a competitive tempo, grinding Reading’s midfield down as he does with every opposing department he faces and O’Riley, naturally, is a completely different option. The game altered as soon as the ginger anchorman departed play, although O’Riley was no passenger. He’s comfortable with the ball at his feet, has a burgeoning vision and, being 19-years-old with next to no senior experience, I was never expecting him to carry the same authority as the Southampton loanee. Luca de la Torre replaced O’Riley in the 83rd minute, presumably to inject Fulham’s midfield with a little more youthful energy, but the American youngster simply didn’t change much at all. O’Riley supplied crosses, connected with his teammates effectively and manned the deck when enforcing his defensive duties. Hauling him off was an injustice and I hope, for Parker’s sake, there was a credible reason behind it.

Anthony Agitates, Again

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I’ve never know a more irritating player than Anthony Knockaert, not in all the years I’ve spent berating perfectly competent professionals for their unsavoury flaws. That’s where my frustration originates from. He’s held in a superior regard at this level and he exhausts his first-rate talent, or so it’s known. Early on, Knockaert worked the channels well, much like he did against Stoke City, hitting the box with appetising crosses but there was always a smidgen too much sauce on his final delivery. He sized Tyler Blackett up and had the beating of the left-back but every single time the ball was under his supervision, our momentum dispersed. I hate to be the spokesman for the tirade against the hot and cold 28-year-old, but I’m left with no choice.

Yes, he actually explored his touchline well, bursting into clear pockets with the box to weave into or pepper with in-swingers, but his final product was such a horror show. He’s greedy, selfish and a discouragingly temperamental character. How he plummeted from a show-stopping performance against the Potters to a villainous showing against Reading just a few days later, I’ll never know. Snatching at speculative half-volleys, fluffing routine crosses, those needless, tedious flicks and flip-flaps, he’s infuriating because we all know what he can really do, what he’s sincerely capable of, but his excessive flamboyance, his redundant influence all factor heavily towards his criticisms.

The final straw for me happened late on, when he decided, foolishly, to lash out at Michael Morrison. I mean, how dense can you truly be? Retrospectively, I’d have brandished a red card because it was a spiteful act of characteristic petulance. Geoff Eltringham may have missed the act itself but if he’d have seen it with full sight, it would have been more than just a caution. Knockaert walks a tightrope whenever things aren’t going his way and it’ll only hinder us further. Would I miss him if he went back to Brighton & Hove Albion? No. I’d welcome it. He’s what the French call “les incompétents”.

Christie’s Contrary Capability

Cyrus Christie got stuck into the thick of the action and did a fine job along the right channel, when he wasn’t being spun into oblivion by Ovie Ejaria, that is. The Republic of Ireland international’s afternoon was a mixed bag, crammed with delectable positives and repulsive negatives but I’ve noticed a radical change in the right-back. His engine’s upgraded from a 2 cylinder to a V8 in a matter of weeks. He’s a port-to-port ferry, doing his bit at both ends of the pitch and he manoeuvres like one, too. See what I mean about the pros and cons?

Immersing himself in the action, Christie picked pockets, drove forward and crossed whenever humanly possible. Cast your mind back to last season, Selhurst Park, where he shirked every given opportunity to test his marker and get the ball in the danger area – perhaps he was vastly out of his comfort zone against Patrick van Aanholt, but his confidence has clearly tripled since then. He didn’t hesitate, he intercepted swiftly and carried the ball intently, streaming past Knockaert to hit the byline and, if play was turned over, he scurried back in retreat of Reading’s systematic counter sieges, not a moment spared. That is what we ask for from our fullbacks and I’m pleased the 27-year-old is seemingly content with his responsibilities, even if it’s still work in progress.

Could have done better, much better, for Reading’s second in particular, but divine miracles work in mysterious ways and for the most part, I was happy with his overall application. Ejaria sent him for a Bovril and a shot of reality as he jinked through Christie’s pinball flipper feet but you’ve got to take Christie with a tiny pinch of salt. He’s not Cafu, he came through at Coventry City in his formative years. Of course, and naturally so, question marks hang over his decision making, his defensive acumen, although when he was required to advance in support, he actually made a considerable statement. Venomous words have been spat in the past but I’ve never wanted Christie to fail, not genuinely. Every so often he returns to his inadequate self but then, intermittently, he turns heads with unconventional flashes of promise.

Denouncing Dismal Defence

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No Alfie Mawson (thankfully), Michael Hector not available, although Fulham still had a particularly versed back four on show against Reading and they were led up the garden path by the visitors’ fleet-footed strike force. The curse of the ever-present weak link rots us to within an inch of insanity, yet again. Schoolboy doesn’t even cut it, the way we held our nerve and discipline whilst attempting to withstand Reading’s flowing counter attacks was infantile, but nothing ever changes. New year, same shoddy, incompetent defensive fortitude.

A dismal cohesion has plagued Fulham’s rearguard for a number of years now and how can that be? How in the modern, professional game is that even allowed? Our defence is exactly the reason why we can’t sufficiently string more than two victories together anymore. Our attack isn’t firing in the way it should and that’s another huge conundrum on its own, but our defence is terribly soft and penetrable, which doesn’t help the odds of us prospering. I have no faith in our back line, whether it be a trio or a flat back four, we’re just so fragile in every conceivable aspect.

Hector’s arrival couldn’t come sooner, but is he really going to be the answer? I feel so, so sorry for him. Having to partner either Tim Ream or Alfie Mawson, the Championship’s bipolar twins, is not a prospect I’d relish. Both of Reading’s goals were cataclysmic. Nobody read John Swift’s movement, not a single soul shielded an ageing Adam from ghosting into a central position and there is no leadership, not an ounce of initiative amongst them. Tim Ream has been here before, Denis Odoi was his right-hand man during the 2017-18 campaign, so where has our nous, our trusted commonsense disappeared to? The Jamaican has one gargantuan job on his hands if he’s going to flip Fulham’s fortunes – this unsatisfactory dilemma runs deeper than being just a blip.