Will Gardner on how the Whites are showing how the ugly side of the beautiful game can pay off.
What a festive period we’ve had, while the whole country has rediscovered the common cold, Fulham have cemented themselves in the top half of the table, strutting our way into the new year with nine points from three games. After the 2022 we had, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised by three wins on the spin, but what’s stood out to me in the past few weeks has been the new gift we found under the tree: a stocking full of grit, and a parcel full of determination, with a lovely little bow on top. We might be winning, but it’s winning the wrong way.
It’s never *too* easy
Obviously, grit and determination weren’t exactly what was required against a Crystal Palace side in self-destruct mode. But as mentioned on the pod a couple weeks ago, it’s been almost a decade since the team has had to face nine men and while it shouldn’t necessarily be a difficult task, it still requires cool heads to prevail. We were only 1-0 up at the time of the sending offs, and if Palace had a couple of quick chances we could have found ourselves in a sticky spot.
Fortunately, we put any doubts to bed with about 20 minutes to go thanks to a Tim Ream rifle, and cemented it 10 minutes later through Mitro. Aside from an early chance for Olise, we were on top throughout this game, and the stats back it up with 64% possession and 2.65 xG and 23 shots to Palace’s four.
Planning breeds confidence
While that may have been a comfortable Boxing Day stroll in the park, the same can’t be said for the Southampton game a few days later. A difficult match where Southampton’s shift to three at the back meant our sharp passing style was stifled. Reed struggled in the midfield and was swapped for TC with about 30 minutes left; a move designed to try and take control in the middle of the park.
Obviously, playing against 11 men meant that the game felt tighter than the Palace match; the Saints were pressing and getting stuck in to us. Gone are the placid red and white stripes from Hasenhüttl’s time in charge and here are a rough-and-ready side happy to leave a late tackle or do some dirty work, evident from the king of dark arts himself Nathan Jones.
Remarkably, there were fewer fouls in this match than the Palace match (21 to 27), as it felt the ref was blowing up every other minute, the Saints were doing their best to get under our skin and we looked lost at times. But after bringing TC on to deliver some calm in the middle, and sending Dan James to use his speed to stretch the pretty solid Saints back five, we found our way to the win, thanks to Palinha at the back post.
Was it a pre-planned move, with Tete running to the near post and flicking to the back? I’d say it was, the movement from both Tete going forward past the near post and subsequently Ream and Palinha to the back makes this move look premeditated and not just a stroke of luck. You also have to assume it was planned as Periera can put the ball on a 20p from 50 yards, so sticking it on the near side of the six-yard box must be bread and butter for him.
We were given a chance to wrap up the game with a penalty at the end, and again this isn’t a penalty from neat and intricate play in the box where we’ve bamboozled a tired right-back into a lunge. It’s come from a hoof up the field by TC, and Dan James does his only piece of skill and runs really fast to cause some confusion between the goalie Bazunu and the CB Lyanco (who is an absolute nutcase, I dunno how he didn’t pick up a single card this game).
The less said about the pen the better, but the overall aspect of the match is that we scrapped and battled and came away bruised but victorious. The saints tried their best to put us off our game, and while they were able to do that, we still found a way to win. A Fulham team of years gone by would’ve looked shell shocked by this and the confusion among the players would’ve caused a calamitous result, but the confidence Marco’s distilled in the squad showed and we held on.
Grit: the secret ingredient
Finally, we made our way up to the midlands to face a confusing Leicester team, who after a shocking start to the season, seemed to sort themselves out prior to the World Cup break winning four out of five, and since the return have lost three out of three. This game was the polar opposite to the Palace game and was even more of a scrap than the Saints game.
After Willian’s perfect ball over the top to Mitro, whose first touch put it on a plate to rifle home, Leicester came out swinging. Ndidi was doing his best to leave a late one on Mitro’s dodgy foot, Barnes was desperately trying to make his way in behind the defence and utilise his speed, and Tielemans was ranting at the ref every chance he got.
The second half was tough to watch, with wave after wave of attack coming from Leicester who had 15 shots overall and nine of them coming in the second half. The Foxes had 61% possession and created three big chances to our one. One of Leicester’s chances came in the first half when Ayoze Perez skied it from about six yards out, another was the Barnes breakaway and the final was a Vardy shot that was well saved from Leno.
We didn’t blow Leicester away, but we held on, we dug in, we showed a new side to our game that we’ve previously struggled to do. These were all results (possibly Palace aside) that we would previously have crumbled in. Whether it be Bernd Leno saving everything in goal, Tim Ream marshalling with a cool head from defence, or Palinha getting in the way of everyone in midfield, we have found a way to shore up and hold on. What a relief it is to see after our previous stint in the Prem.
We might not be winning the ‘right’ way, but you better believe we’re winning.