After another late goal cost us a point at St. James’ Park, George Rossiter digs deep to see if we should be concerned.
Fulham have a lot to be proud of this season. Marco Silva’s Championship winners are flying high, sitting sixth in the Premier League and they’re there on merit. There is an overwhelming list of positives to mention, which could account for an article much longer than this one, but there is one worrying trend that again showed its head, this time at St. James’ Park. Alexander Isak’s late, late winner was one of a number of heartbreaking goals that have come late against the league’s big hitters. So, is it just bad luck? Or is there something to be concerned about?
A sinking feeling
Of course, Isak’s header isn’t the first time Fulham have lost points late on. It started at the Emirates in August, when an 86th minute goal from Brazilian defender Gabriel helped Arsenal pull off a late comeback after Mitro had put Fulham ahead in the second half.
Then came the two games just before the World Cup break. In early November, Fulham headed to the Etihad Stadium and looked destined to take back a fantastic point thanks to an early Joao Cancelo red card contributed to the optimism in the away end. However, Erling Haaland’s 95th-minute penalty broke the hearts of the travelling fans. Just a week later, it was Alejandro Garnacho who took away another opportunity of a positive result in injury time, as Manchester United took home all three points.
Silva inviting pressure with substitutes?
Arsenal away: In the 79th minute, Silva replaced Pereira and Tete with Diop and Mbabu, pushing Fulham into a back five, but also losing our best defensive full-back and best presser going forward. In the following seven minutes, Nketiah and Martinelli came close to scoring and Arsenal won a string of corners. One of those corners led to the Arsenal winner.
Man City away: Within the last 15 minutes at the Etihad, Silva replaced the full front four that day (Wilson, Pereira, Willian, Vinicius) with two central midfielders, a winger and a full-back (Cairney, Harris, James, Mbabu). While in that time Fulham looked dangerous on the counter, City regained control of possession even with 10 men, and that pressure led to the awarding of an injury time penalty, which Haaland duly converted.
Man United at home: It’s potentially harsh to credit a 92nd minute substitute with a 93rd minute goal, but bringing Onomah on for Cairney at any time would have felt like Silva was willing to concede an element of control, let alone so late in a game where Garnacho went through seconds later to win the game for Man United.
Newcastle away: The changes made on Tyneside recently reminded me of that game at the Emirates. With less than quarter of an hour to go, Silva replaced Pereira and Willian with Tosin and James. Fulham’s resultant midfield lacked control for the remainder of the game and James’s pace was no substitute for Pereira’s press going forward. Another example of a change of system late on to see a game out simply not paying off.
Quality of substitutes
This isn’t an excuse, nor is it dismissing the quality Silva has at his disposal in his matchday squads, but it is undeniable that the quality available to the bigger and richer clubs off the bench is greater than that of Fulham’s. And this is a point significant to this analysis, as the scorers of these late goals have often come off the bench. Foden, Dias and Haaland were utilised from the bench by Pep Guardiola, which resulted in a goal and a disallowed goal from a certain Norweigan striker.
A week later, it was wunderkind Garnacho who came on for Martial in the 73rd minute, and the Argentine winger was placing the ball beyond Bernd Leno’s reach 20 minutes later. Alexander Isak was expected to bring the goals after his big money signing from Real Sociedad, but we were left wishing his full return from injury came a few weeks later.
How do we stop it from happening again?
The simple answer here is cutting out errors that we don’t seem to be making earlier on in games. It’s frustrating seeing a pattern repeat here, when we know this side is capable of seeing games out, for example, like they did so brilliantly at the Cottage in victory over Brighton earlier this season. Some may point to making less negative changes late in games since that has previously seemed to have cost us as we have pointed out. Equally, cutting out simple defensive errors would help Fulham’s cause at one end of the pitch, while taking chances of our own would help in our opposition’s box.
At Arsenal, it was a weak attempt at clearing the ball from Leno that resulted in the ball falling at the feet of Gabriel to see Arsenal win, while Chalobah couldn’t quite finish himself at the other end just after. Away to Manchester City, a string of wasted counter attacks from James and Mbabu frustrated the away end, while at the other end it was a foul from Antonee Robinson that conceded the penalty that won Man City the game, a penalty that Bernd Leno will know he should have saved in hindsight.
When United took the points home from London, criticism was made of Bobby De Cordova-Reid’s defending, with Garnacho breezing past his man far too easily in the area. The less said about Newcastle the better. Ball watching in the backline leaving Isak through to nod home unmarked, especially after a missed Mitrovic penalty earlier on, was gut-wrenching to say the least.
Ultimately, it feels so harsh critiquing one of the best Fulham sides we have seen this century. In terms of points, performances and play style in general, most fans would be happy to see minimal changes from Marco Silva and his approach. But it has to be acknowledged that so many points lost in such similar circumstances can’t become a longer term trend.
Keeping the level of performances lasting for 90 minutes so that late mistakes at both ends of the pitch don’t creep in is pivotal, regardless of the quality of the opponent. Of course, going toe-to-toe with the current top four sides in the division is a privilege we shouldn’t take for granted, but had we had the points that we lost in such games, it’s not infeasible to be having genuine dreams of Europe.
Obviously perspective is important, but facts are facts. Fulham are able to compete with the very best this season, and Marco Silva has the potential to take some huge scalps in the coming weeks with even just the smallest of changes, especially if it means Fulham can hold onto positive results and spare the Fulham faithful the occasional heartbreak.