Five Thoughts: Fulham 1-0 Middlesbrough

Cameron Ramsey 18th January 2020

Not really the return to SW6 that Djed Spence and Patrick Roberts were dreaming of, and that makes the victory all the sweeter. That’s five wins in five from the weekend’s early kick-offs and it’s a damn long way for Middlesbrough’s fan base to come for a 1-0 loss. Mock our home support when you barely get 10,000 at the Riverside? Guess you got what you deserved in the end. We never asked for clappers anyway.

Two past stalwarts of the English game – one a pioneer of his trade, the other a Real Madrid flop – exchanged unsavoury phrases in front of the temporary gantry and it was our former England international that claimed the spoils. Scott Parker cheffed up a strategical masterclass and got everything spot on, to be honest.

We’re within touching distance of the automatic spots. Once upon a time, we were 13 points behind Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion but now the horizon’s bright and plentiful. Fortunes can flip in an instance but while the getting’s good, we’ve got to learn to love this league for all its drama, controversy and sheer excitement. Friday night delight is better by the Thames.

Countless Crumbled Chances

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Fulham bolted from the traps and landed the game’s defining blow in the 6th minute. Middlesbrough were completely overwhelmed by the Whites’ intense policy and were carved wide open, spatchcocked, even, and could have trudged into the interval with a 6-goal deficit to relinquish. Parker’s camp knitted together incisive sequences, rendering Woodgate’s men inadequate but remarkably, though, the score line stayed as it was with the hosts spurning a catalogue of clear cut chances to widen the margin. Ivan Cavaleiro blazed over from an ideal angle within the 18-yard box, Joshua Onomah, unmarked, butted wide from a corner, the list goes on and we really should have been out of sight. Fulham may have been in the ascendancy, but the game could have taken a nasty turn for the worst as a result of our miscued efforts.

Boro, in fleeting spells, enlightened us to the threat they carry going forward and could have pulled level in the 30th minute after a freak deflection clattered the crossbar. This fluke jogged us back into reality, although if we dared to slip back into complacency, Boro were well equipped to punish if they were given a sniff. In the second half, Fulham’s unbearable tempo lulled and Boro grew into a rhythm of their own, hemming Fulham back and constricting their grip and distinction. As we simply couldn’t stick it away (not blaming the linesman for his judgement in Denis Odoi’s glancing header), the game tumbled into an extremely nervy affair in the closing stages as Boro probed for an equaliser.

Clenched fists, jaws and butt cheeks, Fulham’s faithful glimpsed on as both set-ups traded jabs and combinations with moments to spare. Just like it was when Stoke City came to town, the Whites’ clung on to the slender gap they had between 3 points and 1. Fulham dispatched 17 shots, 6 being registered on target and despite the fact we snubbed multiple opportunities, we didn’t seem to miss Aleksandar Mitrovic’s enterprise up top. The Serb quality checks every instance that enters the final third but free-flowing, penetrative, verified football remained compatible to our system, even without a main focal point to construct from.

Anthony’s Astonishing Application

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What an exceptional outing Anthony Knockaert had terrorising the right flank. Marcus Tavernier was held hostage by the fiery Frenchman and every blade of grass was examined in the process. With Mitro’ out of contention for a few weeks, it’s now imperative that every offensive component stands up to make their presence and significance known and the 28-year-old grafted tirelessly to reign supreme. I’m not necessarily Knockaert’s biggest fanboy, but he was my personal Man of the Match without question.

Knockaert violated the touchline, bobbing and weaving into advantageous areas and it wasn’t very long before he was rewarded for his actions. Lurking just yards from the target, Knockaert’s killer instinct kicked in and Fulham were rightfully in front. Always on the hunt for an opening to beset Boro, the energetic winger was relentless, stampeding at Boro’s back four, forcing them to rush and abort. His individual work-rate was wholly essential as it encouraged his offensive teammates to follow his purposeful example.

Busting a gut to prise possession back if he’d initially lost out, initiating counters without hesitancy, Knockaert was a non-stop model for resourceful energy. I’ve never seen him work harder. His defensive impulse was also commendable. Doubling up with Odoi, the right channel was fairly watertight and, at the flick of the switch, Fulham could defuse Boro’s overhanging impetus. His temperament is still an issue for me, he can talk himself into trouble with a single stroke of petulance, but if he channels his energy positively, he’s a massive asset to our cause, and he proved his worth and importance on Friday evening, yet again. Game changer, match winner, passion merchant. In that order, if you please.

Hailing Heroic Hector

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There’s a definite correlation between Michael Hector’s involvement and three consecutive victories. Just for the record, that’s now also two clean sheets in a row so, in light of this promising revelation, we’ve got to hand the authoritative centre-half some bona fide credit. It’s the very least he deserves after restraining Rudy Gestede so effortlessly. We forget that Hector is heavily versed at this level but, alongside an older head in Tim Ream, I think we’ve found our ideal centre-half pairing.

Aerially dominant, the 27-year-old rebuffed Boro’s hopeless long balls and on the floor, his perceptive acumen enabled him to arrest the ball from the laces of Boro’s advancing attackers. Brushing Gestede in the penalty area, Boro were aggrieved that they weren’t awarded a spot kick although there was nothing in it. The Jamaica international’s presence alone was enough to subdue the Benin representative, and that is by no means an easy task to overcome. Ruthless in close contention battles, Hector was comfortable enough to allow the ball to skip out of play, shielding Roberts, Tavernier and Gestede with an unconditional jurisdiction.

Fulham’s matchday XI requires leadership and with Kevin McDonald and Big Hec’ on the same pitch, the Whites were well-drilled, vigilant and ready to the highest degree. Establishing a fundamental understanding, KMac and Hector patrolled the quadrant between the midfield and the back four scrupulously, reviewing Boro’s approach with a fine tooth comb in order to protect Fulham’s accessible spine. Two natural-born leaders, operating in unison to hold us together. If one barked orders, the other reaffirmed and, as a result, the Whites conducted themselves excellently. Hector takes no prisoners and now he’s embedded himself into Parker’s plans, Fulham’s rearguard is a much safer place to practise your profession.

Beholding Bryan’s Benefit

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I’ve tried, but I can’t imagine a world without Joe Bryan supplying the goods from the left in a Fulham shirt. His drilled assist is exactly why he must remain at the Cottage for the remainder of the campaign and beyond, for that matter. Spence couldn’t cope as the Whites overloaded the final third along his respective flank and Bryan, shimmying from the Fulham youth product, fired across the 6-yard box, zipping the ball within a narrow corridor for Knockaert to prod home. Absolute precision, exclusively crucial to our welfare.

There’s still lingering doubts shadowing his underlying defensive capability and awareness somewhat, but he’s such a beneficial device to have in wider reaches. Inclined to support continuously, Bryan interlinked with Cav’ systematically, luring Spence and Jonny Howson out of position. This forged openings within Boro’s back three and, whilst Bryan’s a provider by custom, he also managed to muddy Aynsley Pears’ gloves from the edge of the box with a considered right-footed effort in the 69th minute. Wrong peg, bro.

We have Cav’ and Knockaert on hand to bamboozle, Bryan’s prime objective is to cater for the strike force. Terence Kongolo is, by trade a left sided centre-half that is capable of deputising at left-back if needed, but we wouldn’t get the same forward-thinking effect from the Dutch international. Odoi can play anywhere across the back but that qualification is actually a burden. One week he could be on the right, the next at centre-half, the Belgian doesn’t have factory position anymore. What’s that? Maxime Le Marchand? There’s the door. Bryan is one of a kind.

Onomah’s Officially Outstanding

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I’ve seen the light. Now I’m starting to see what Parker does in Onomah. Persistence has paid off for the young midfielder and he’s genuinely buttoned down an undisputed starting place. I, for one, hadn’t been very fair in my critique of the 22-year-old upon his emergence to first-team football but he’s redeemed himself in my estimation. It’s official, Onomah is an outstanding member of the team, exemplifying the difference between ruin and restoration of self-belief.

The former Tottenham Hotspur hotshot’s box-to-box application kept Fulham’s midfield department ticking. Pursuing George Saville and Adam Clayton, Onomah made life a toilsome chore for Boro in the middle and, if he’d been surpassed, he snapped back to stricken their progress through the centre. Onomah voyaged from one end to the other and was a relevant cog in our midfield machine. He could have also bagged a few goals for himself as well, if he’d steadied himself properly, but he wasn’t a passive bystander, he was integral, right up until he was replaced by Harry Arter in the 79th minute.

For a big guy, Onomah’s grace and poise on the ball is wonderfully deceptive. Boro attempted to dislodge possession, but there’s voltage in those wiry legs of his. It seemed as though Clayton and Saville had him sussed but out of nowhere, Onomah would morph into Patrick Vieira, circa 2001/2002, with the agility of Jack Wilshere against Barcelona, the 2011 edition. Twisting out of tight pockets and offloading possession intelligently, the new-found regista was the innovative inspiration we needed to wreak havoc beside Tom Cairney. At first glimpse, he cut a scrawny, fragile figure and faded out of proceedings without a whimper, a scapegoat for abuse. Now, he’s a man of prominence, initiative and he relishes coldhearted confrontations on a weekly basis. Top stuff, Josh!