Manchester City recorded a routine 2-0 victory over a Fulham side that haven’t won at the Etihad since April 2009. In fact, the Whites haven’t even scored a single solitary goal against City, in all competitions, since December 2013 so, in the words of Liam Gallagher, “as you were”.
Was it a penalty? Like fuck, but this loss came at no surprise, even after our heroics on Monday evening, and with three points under our belts in a sequence of meetings where our goal difference was supposed to take one hell of a thrashing, I’d say we’re excelling expectation at a canter.
A depleted Liverpool await us next Sunday but hold back the gulps. We’ve learnt a great deal about Scott Parker’s camp in the past few weeks and from what we’ve observed, we can’t be that worried, can we? Pep Guardiola apparently admires the courage within this relegation-circling club of ours and you know what? I agree with him entirely. Another weekend outside the bottom three, despite the fact we’re nailed on for the drop: complete.
Areola Stems Bloodshed
I’ve said it once, twice, three times and I’ll announce it again, just for the ones at the back: Alphonse Areola is a ridiculously talented ‘keeper and he stems further bloodshed with show-stopping saves, yet again, to frustrate City’s strike force when a deluge of goals was forecast. Rapidly readjusting his posture to palm goal-bound efforts away from danger, charging off his line to close the margin, hugging his near post to narrow the angle, the Frenchman was in fine fettle between the sticks and it’s an injustice that his afternoons are blighted so often by scorelines that are out of his control.
In Areola, we have a stopper that’s faced the very best of the modern game and in moments of impending risk, he kept his head to deny City on numerous occasions. Aware of his surroundings, Areola commanded from the 18-yard box and sprung into action when he was pleadingly called upon, and you won’t see a better stop this weekend, as Kevin De Bruyne, as he bore down on goal with a third in his sight. This for me, is an instance that will define his worth. A ‘keeper, credited with a World Cup Winners’ medal, derailing the Premier League’s dynamic superstar with a blockade that disobeyed logic. One-on-one, eyeballing the darling of European football, Areola was well within his inborn element.
If De Bruyne had netted, capitulation could have infected the Whites and as grand as a goal would’ve been, a save of that prestige was just as gratifying, and he made several. Areola’s a vocal character both on and off the pitch, and he’s made it clear to the media that he wants to make his loan spell at the Cottage a successful, memorable one. He’s a dedicated professional, our last line of defence, and as our back four develop an understanding, his exploits will become even more pivotal. He’s here to prove himself, in an outfit that could fall short come May, but all I’ve seen of the Paris Saint-Germain stopper is devotion and allegiance, and he is precisely the mould of personality we want at our club, especially in a campaign where graft and enthusiasm will count for a whole lot more.
Damage Limitation Demonstrated
Swept aside in the opening 45, a second half of drudgery seemed imminent but those golden 15 minutes Parker got in the dressing room refocused his men, a rocket up the rectum, because after the interval, Fulham demonstrated a damage-limiting temperament, a convincing solidarity that offset City’s rhythmic attack. We failed to lessen the deficit, but we dug deep to ensure that an inevitable loss didn’t worsen, and if we’re going to take any constructive pluses away from this game, which we undeniably will, recognising that we actually drew the second-half 0-0 is nothing short of extremely satisfying to the spirit and senses, and that’s hardly clutching at straws.
Subduing City is not for the fainthearted. Sacrificing progression for preventive resolve, Fulham had to fend off the hosts unremittingly, it was imperative that each department communicated and cooperated in complete unison, and other than a predictable scare, or five, the Whites quelled the swell. De Bruyne tampered with our structure in the early stages, although his relevance reduced as the Whites’ preliminary respect for the Belgian’s brilliance boiled down to combative resentfulness. Asserting ourselves upon the PFA Player of the Year and his world-class teammates was crucial, we had to manifest a meanness, a confrontational streak and from Joachim Andersen, all the way through to Ivan Cavaleiro, we enacted a hostility that chastened City’s innovative architects.
Well, I say hostile, but it wasn’t a particularly nice environment for City to tolerate, and that’s courtesy of Fulham’s camaraderie and obstinacy. The hosts completed passing phases routinely, they surged into promising areas but they couldn’t find that third, a goal that would’ve surely deflated the Whites’ rebellious morale. We hear pundits squawk on incessantly about aggression, a warmongering quality that the Whites supposedly lack so severely – did that second-half showing contain the feistiness they’re on about? Because from where I was sat, our collective fight and antagonism certainly wasn’t absent or lacking. We strapped ourselves in, did our jobs and ended the game with our respectability intact, and if that’s how Parker wants his set-up to react, Fulham will reap the fruits of their labour.
Anguissa Astounds, Again
The general, the drill master, the silkiest saucepot with the ball under his spell, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa proved to us fans and the Premier League’s footballing hierarchy that he’s just too damn good at what he does so naturally in the middle of the park. In a central area adorned with regal reputations, Zambo stole the spotlight with a showing of genuine ascendency, and even when the Whites were chasing shadows and scrambling to re-establish a shallow foothold, the Cameroon international held the flickering torch of resistance aloft, leading by example as per.
Not to be overshadowed by City’s exalted contingent, Anguissa’s rule was illuminated by lung-busting runs, beguiling trickery and considerate distribution, features that calmed and galvanised Fulham’s scattered spells of possession. His outing against the Foxes was distinguished and at the Etihad, Zambo continued to disregard a script that foretold a tedious existence for the Whites’ inadequate midfield department. An inital double pivot of Harrison Reed and Anguissa was overrun by City’s slick manoeuvres and they broke the deadlock from a central position just 5 minutes into proceedings but, as Fulham settled, With Ruben Loftus-Cheek filling a few vacant gaps as part of a revised trio, Anguissa started to pull the strings.
Comfortable, unperturbed, Anguissa swivelled out of claustrophobic situations, bodying City’s would-be dispossessors with deceitful flicks, dips and faints that are banned in at least 15 American states. His confidence in his ability is astounding, but why wouldn’t you rate yourself when you’ve tekkers as filthy as his? Tracking back, as he was obliged to do so regularly, Zambo imposed himself upon City’s ball carriers, distracting and robbing them of possession with expertly-times interceptions, snipping out the hosts’ calculated intent on the break. His sheer presence bothered the likes of De Bruyne, Gundogan and Rodrigo, who certainly respected resourceful authoritarian’s ever-present enterprise.
Channels Cancelled Out
Where Decordova-Reid and Antonee Robinson were very much pertinent along their respective wings against Leicester City, Fulham’s progression from wide areas was cancelled out by Benjamin Mendy along the left and Joao Cancelo along the right, and City’s dominance was bolstered further by the potent exploits of Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez, who interliked with the immediate support at hand telepathically. The sheer gulf in class meant that Fulham were destined to travail, even the finest wingers and fullbacks in the game toil in the wake of the hosts’ presiding approach from the touchline and it was no different for the visitors. Stunting City’s movement out wide was just as essential as curbing De Bruyne’s influence centrally, and though it wasn’t a sparkling display by any means, the Whites weathered stormy waters to prevail relatively unscathed.
Robinson’s connection with Ademola Lookman, in recent meetings, has transformed our functionality along the left and the American’s tendency to bomb on and fall back within a split second makes him an expansive outlet although on Saturday afternoon, the handbrake jammed, because his Algerian counterpart gave him far too much to think about defensively. For the duration, his defensive wits were examined endlessly, but he did, in fact, stand up to the challenge admirably to stop the rot against a winger in the form of his personal campaign. That was crucial, if we kept Mahrez as quiet and muted as possible, City’s incisive combinations would fizzle out of kilter and Robinson remained vigilant in intimidating company. Yes, Cancelo doubled up with Mahrez to fuse consequential patterns at the flick of a switch, but Robinson eagerness, blended with Lookman’s commitment in the closing stages, sapped the sting out of City’s tail.
Fortunes with BDR and Ola Aina followed suit, the licence to full express their offensive acumen was confiscated and in order to restore and preserve dignity and decency, both held the line to condense the gaps Mendy, Sterling, and occasionally Ilkay Gundogan, had to weave their systematic sequences within. Aina’s defensive capabilities have been scrutinised and Decordova-Reid, covering an alien position, was basically a sitting duck, primed for plucking but, emulating the defiant attitude the left side embraced, our right flank hindered the Citizens, just enough, to conserve a defeat that doesn’t automatically reek of downtrodden inferiority. Clipping the wings was essential and Fulham stuck to their guns with an assembled, yet flexible, protective endorsement along the outskirts.
Agreeing with Robbie Savage isn’t easy or something that’s usually even remotely advised but, begrudgingly, the flawed pundit was actually spot on with his observation of Loftus-Cheek’s positioning. RLC, operating in a makeshift striker/centre-forward/false nine capacity offered Fulham next to nothing in the first half and one can only wonder why Aleksandar Mitrovic wasn’t fielded from the start. The Whites adopted 5-2-3 formation and it soon became glaringly obvious that City could and would shave through our hourglass shape with the cutting edge of a Gillette Fusion razorblade and, whilst Harrison Reed is a more than capable warden, he and Anguissa required extra cover, or at least an extra body to clog the hosts’ thumping midfield arteries.
Heading into the second 45, Parker tinkered with our composition, partnering Lookman and Cavaleiro together up and pushing RLC back into the central third, which was completely necessary. That slight shape-shifting alteration enabled us to shepherd possession more efficiently, albeit without creation but as we’ve identified, mounting a comeback was not the big all and end all in this game, denying City further joy was. With added offensive impetus (I say that loosely), Fulham did leave themselves open and were susceptible to the Sky Blues’ uniformed counter attacks, a symptom of our rejigged composition, although we did regroup briskly to counteract potential moments of jeopardy, and that has to be praised.
Our reformation has introduced new demands and it’s also presented notable selection conundrums for Parker to wrangle with. Given the way in which we’re currently shaping ourselves up, is there realistically room for Mitro, if he negates the fluent transitions we’re vying to achieve? RLC – who was a passenger, anyway – completely evaporated out of proceedings as the game wore on, so does that pave the way for Tom Cairney to return? What of BDR when Kenny Tete’s ready for action – does he replace Cav’ in the final third, if he’s surplus at right wing-back? There are variants to the gaffer’s pliable blueprints and from what I’ve seen in the week that’s gone by, I’m supportive of his vision but, now that the founding hardcore’s in situ, applying the requisite personnel is his latest enigma code to crack. There is a formula, all Parker has to do is establish a prescription.