Five Thoughts: Fulham 2-1 Aston Villa

Cameron Ramsey 5th January 2020

The blissful magic of the FA Cup. It’s been a long time. Last season, Fulham were outplayed by a struggling Oldham Athletic without a manager but this year against a teetering Aston Villa, directed by former Brentford boss Dean Smith (double points), the Whites progressed to the 4th round of the planet’s oldest club competition. Is, is that Wembley in the distance?

The foaming anger I felt following our impotent loss on New Years Day hasn’t subsided, although it’s a small step in the right direction. The one thing we are, however, is inconsistent and just because we defeated a weakened Villa, it doesn’t mean we’re over the hill, skipping towards pastures new.

Saturday’s victory is, however, a reason to be mildly cheerful. It’s a welcome break from the Championship and an opportunity to regroup. A cup run would be fantastic and a relieving antidote to the uncertain slog league football throws up, so if we’re gonna go on a little knees up, let’s take it in our stride. Thanks for making the journey, Villa fans. We enjoyed having 50,000 of you at our quaint little stadium.

Goals, Good Gravy

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Not a terrible place to start at all, no? The Hammersmith End has witnessed a treasure chest of exceptional goals this season. Tom Cairney’s spanked off two blinders from his left peg, Ivan Cavaleiro assaulted the target against Charlton Athletic and Anthony Knockaert’s cross-come-shot against West Bromwich Albion was, before Saturday afternoon, the best thing the Frenchman’s done during his scrutinised loan spell at the club to date. He’s definitely not a favourite of mine, but his outrageous 54th-minute opener certainly is.

The Whites sprung out of their own half after stealing possession from Villa and within a matter of seconds, Knockaert dipped into net-busting range. Slaloming from the right flank, the 28-year-old didn’t think twice about wrapping his left peg around the ball from 25 yards, launching it past a powerless Ørjan Nyland. That, that was special. The Brighton & Hove Albion loanee’s a trigger-happy customer, known for his speculatively selfish punts from outlandish areas. This one, however, didn’t balloon into FF, H4, and it didn’t provoke groans of despair from the terraces, it induced various expletives of the positive, jovial kind.

Alan Partridge’s World Cup ’94 commentary springs to mind with the second of the afternoon, detonated by a midfielder returning from exile. Harry Arter hadn’t featured since our draw at the Cardiff City Stadium in October but bloody hell, he made an instant impact. At least 30 yards out, the forgotten Republic of Ireland international hammered through, propelling the ball into the postage stamp, first class. “Twat! What a goal.” Two fatal strikes, both capable of starting and ending WW3. Blitzkrieg in the 3rd round of the FA Cup, and no better way to send our complacent visitors packing.

Sharp Second Showing

Not to break a trend, the first-half was timid, tame and or patterns of play took an absolute age, as always, to build. I don’t recall us even testing the target before the break, not seriously, and that’s purely because there was such a dire lack of impetus in the final third. Cyrus Christie was a persistent outlet but there was no one to hit in the penalty area and, if we tried to construct centrally, we resorted to shifting possession side to side as we couldn’t physically grind Villa down. If it wasn’t for Marek Rodak’s superb reaction save to deny Anwar El Ghazi just before the interval, we’d have rued our lifeless enterprise.

The Whites did string together attractive sequences in the first 45 and were the better outfit for the majority, but something had to give, a change of attitude or a spark of genius. With both squads vying to land the opener, the second-half was a vastly open affair and Fulham clearly wanted it more. Villa’s mentality bruised as the game progressed and the hosts stepped up after conceding. There was something in this game for Fulham and they could smell it. Hunting in packs, maintaining a relentlessly strenuous press and pouncing on Villa’s inactive strategy, Parker’s men were completely superior.

Bravery told with our efforts to exploit Villa along the flanks and confidence oozed in virtually every touch of the ball. This, for many reasons, was a prime opportunity for Fulham to redeem themselves. We’ve been branded predictable, boring and listless but our rapid, straightforward disposition against a Premier League collective, albeit a faltering one, was extremely pleasing to behold. This galvanised reaction fundamentally means nothing, though. If we’re to trust and believe in the courage that surfaced, we have to see it translate into the league. If anything, treat each Championship fixture like a knock-out encounter, one game at a time.

Deliberating Defender’s Debut

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For a man that hasn’t played a competitive first-team game for half a season, Micheal Hector didn’t seem overly rusty on his debut for the Whites. The physical centre-half embodies a commander and, whilst he could have done better for Villa’s equaliser, of course, he made a promising statement with a relatively assured performance alongside a haphazard Alfie Mawson. To be fair, Mawson actually performed splendidly, not a calamitous mistake in sight, and I put that down, solely, to his new partner at the back.

Hector, from the off, restored order to the Whites’ flaky defensive department, initiating and stunting sequences from the back without being rushed or perturbed. Villa’s midfield playmakers tried to pierce through the middle with hopeful forward passes but the Jamaica international, sharp and aware, intervened to halt the visitors’ obvious approach. Villa went long, relying on Jonathan Kodjia to hold possession, but Hector read the memo and was aerially imperious.

A few wayward passes here and there, not getting goal-side to blockade Kodjia, as mentioned, but there’s definitely an efficient defender in Hector. Was howling when Henry Lanbury thought his minerals were big enough to confront the sizeable centre-back, and it soon became clear that Hector didn’t care for handbags, or puny cajones. Discipline, that’s what we’ve sorely missed! Crowned Sheffield Wednesday’s Player of the Season last term, the 27-year-old isn’t quite up to speed just yet, but he’s a reputable enforcer that will certainly make a significant difference to the heart of our back four.

Starlet Stansfield Shines

I presume Parker put an arm round Jay Stansfield before he was introduced to first-team matters in the 82nd minute and said “run around, be a nuisance and show them who you are.” At just 17-years-old, Stansfield could have been overawed by the occasion, intimidated by an expectant home following although it was quite the contrary. He didn’t necessarily set the world alight, but an enthusiastic, nearly profitable showing educated us to the natural intelligence and devotion the excelling starlet readily applies to his budding game.

Cav’ started up top as the central component of our front three but we couldn’t manufacture beneficial phases with the Portuguese winger in that capacity. Stansfield, a goal machine by trade, hounded James Chester and Bjorn Engels incessantly, as any centre-forward typically should, sustaining Fulham’s high press with a hunger to impress. Darting beyond Neil Taylor, Stansfield lifted his head and blazed a tantalising cross into the 6-yard box from the right channel. Charging in at the back stick, Knockaert could have added a third goal but he was inches, a hair’s width away from diverting. Stansfield didn’t ponder his options, diver with indecision, he just knows where to stick the ball. An innate gift, undeniably.

Since joining the Whites from Exeter City in August 2019, there’s nothing to suggest that the prolific youngster’s afraid of his new surroundings in the capital. In fact, he’s flourished into the academy’s free-scoring hitman and he’s certainly got a bright future in SW6 ahead of him. With 22 goals in 13 games for the Whites’ development folds this term, ranging from the U18s to the Premier League 2 set-up, Stansfield is a scary talent and he’s one of ours. Definitely want to see more of him in the next round and, if he’s given the nod domestically beforehand, I won’t have any reservations whatsoever.

McDonald Makes Most

Penning a new contract midweek, Kevin McDonald to Fulham’s starting XI and buttressed the middle of the park faultlessly, calling upon his experience and conveyance to escort the Whites through a game that could have been very treacherous without his trusted resourcefulness. Acting as an auxiliary defender, KMac dropped deep in support of Mawson and Hector, shielding Kodjia from getting in behind unattended, the Scotsman was the protective blanket we needed and it’s a real wonder why he hasn’t gained more game time this season. He prevented trouble excellently, but what else do we really expect?

As well as his reinforcing defensive responsibilities, McDonald endeavoured to support in the final third, making contributory – yet particularly foreseeable – runs into the 18-yard box to distract Villa’s defenders from our other more equipped weapons of choice. He also distributed effectively, mixing it up with a range of simple and adventurous passes, chipped or putted smoothly to its intended destination. A calming influence making the most of his rare outing from the sidelines, the 31-year-old shored things up quite nicely indeed.

Substituted in the 72nd minute for Arter, McDonald’s relevance is still very much alive and well. Perhaps he can’t last a full 90 week after week anymore and, given a full fit midfield department, I don’t expect he’d feature ahead of the likes of Harrison Read, Tom Cairney, even Arter for that matter, but he’s undoubtedly an older head we can always rely on, and the fact he signed a deal to prolong his stay at Craven Cottage until 2021, proves he’s on board with the club’s near future aspirations, be it a pivotal or peripheral figure.