Jordan Forward-Lamb takes a glass half-full look at Fulham’s striking options ahead of Monday’s West London derby.
Fulham have a tricky history with Premier League strikers. If you boil it down to goals – and let’s face it, that’s all most people are paying attention to – our only out-and-out strikers to bag more than 10 goals have been Louis Saha, Barry Hayles, Collins John, Andrew Cole, Dimitar Berbatov, and Aleksander Mitrovic. That’s just six across 16 Premier League campaigns.
Suffice to say: strikers like Mitrovic don’t come along for Fulham very often. Replacing him was never going to be an option without the club taking a huge gamble, and let’s not forget what happened last time the Khans pinned all their hopes on a striker who could save us from slipping down the league table. So it should never have been a surprise that we brought in a misfiring veteran in Raúl Jiménez for £5m. If it works we’ve scored a bargain and can spend a little longer looking for a new striker, if it doesn’t we’ve got a proven back-up in Carlos Vinícius.
Still, even the most pessimistic fans probably didn’t predict the season starting this slowly without Mitro. Our three strikers have managed only one goal in six games between them: a truly miserable return. But it’s an equally poor reflection of the quality and depth Marco Silva has at his disposal in Jiménez, Viní, and Muniz.
Let’s start with Jiménez. The Mexican hasn’t seemed off the pace or out of place at any point this season; apart from a goal, he’s got it all. He presses intelligently, coordinating with Pereira to make sure opposition defenders are never comfortable in their own third. His first touch is excellent, and with superior pace to Mitro, he poses a real threat in transitions by drifting out wide and laying the ball off to an onrushing teammate. While he’s taken some flack for not being selfish enough in front of goal, he rarely wastes possession and is seemingly always able to calmly pick out a sensible option – one of Mitrovic’s most frustrating qualities was his tendency to dawdle on the ball, clumsily dribbling his way into oncoming traffic while ignoring good passing options.
And then there’s his snapshot accuracy. We’ve seen him hit the woodwork while running away from goal in the Everton game, which probably would have been turned in by Cairney if he had enough confidence in his right foot to take a first-time shot. He was inches wide with a bicycle kick in the Arsenal game, and while we’d all rather forget Man City, it was Jiménez – once again moving away from goal – who forced Ederson to parry the ball into Ream’s path for our only goal that game. Sure, his shooting accuracy isn’t great this season, but this is not a striker running low on confidence who’s smashing gilt-edged chances into orbit, and I’d have bet my house on him burying a couple of the opportunities Viní had on Wednesday.
Jiménez gives Marco Silva versatility and dynamism up top, a striker who does a little bit of everything and who would look a great deal more tantalising if those playing around him were at their best. The fact that Jiménez is the leading Fulham player for big chances created says a lot about Fulham’s attacking play this season.
The alternative is Carlos Vinícius, who has carved out a role for himself as a classic poacher. He’s a right place, right time kind of striker, who can be infuriating to watch for 70 minutes, but inevitably finds a way to goal, whether that’s pouncing on a goalkeeping mistake or turning in a teammate’s looping cross-come-shot. He can be languorous and wasteful in some games, but on his day he can draw in and turn defenders with beguiling ease, play out through tight spaces, and, y’know, score the winner against Chelsea. If you expect to be the team without the ball for most of the game and are pinning all your hopes on a couple of shooting opportunities then you could do a lot worse than Vinícius.
And perhaps we’d feel better about him if Fulham had adapted to his strengths sooner last season, playing to feet rather than hoofing balls up to the Brazilian prankster like he’s a traditional target man.
The third option, and I really do believe he’s an option, is Rodrigo Muniz. He’s the paciest and busiest striker by far, but he’s also strong and can climb well, making him a kind of roving target man. Despite scant minutes he makes a lasting impression every time he comes on. In just 10 minutes against Norwich he forced a superb save from the keeper, played two beautiful layoffs, each one springing a dangerous attack, and shielded the ball from a throw in before turning between two defenders and finding a pass on the outside of the box – although, admittedly, that ‘pass’ was thundered into Wilson’s midriff and we duly lost possession.
Muniz is rough around the edges, but in a season where we don’t have a truly elite striker he deserves to be in contention. In terms of physical presence and play style, he’s arguably the closest thing we have to a Mitrovic replacement, so if things still aren’t clicking with Raúl or Viní against Chelsea on Monday, reverting to last season’s tactics and trying Muniz up front gives us a genuine plan B.
With Chelsea’s sizeable injury list predominantly comprising defenders like Chilwell, James, Badiashile, and Trevor Chalobah, sowing disarray across their backline is where Fulham will have the most luck, and that’s where Jiménez and Muniz (as a late sub) will excel.
Pochettino’s side has shown some vulnerability in wide areas already this season, particularly when their wing-backs have gotten caught out of position, creating space out wide when Silva, Colwill, and Disasi are occupied centrally, and gaps between the three when they’re stretched in transitions. With Jiménez roaming around and making probing runs off the 39-year-old Thiago Silva, there’s a good chance our wide players like Willian and Wilson will be able to find the space and killer ball to open things up.
As Drew rightly points out in his match preview, these derbies feel a bit different nowadays, and just as we didn’t need Mitro for that historic win, we may be just fine without him on Monday, too.