What’s Behind Fulham’s Mid-Season Revival?

Pundits love to flog a dead horse and there is no bigger one than a relegation battle that is a foregone conclusion. Thankfully, it seems pundits will be spared having to actually research areas of interest, with Fulham’s recent revival. They have put together a run of form that has scared Newcastle fans. Almost as much as the prospect of grounds reopening and having to go and watch their team.

Scott Parker’s side have confounded all pundits and fans alike as their early season form prompted one self-praising ‘banter’ site masquerading as a bookmakers to pay out on their doom after three games and they’ve quite frankly spat all over Jamie Carragher’s statement that he was ‘more sure that Fulham are going down than I am that Liverpool are winning the league’. At the time of writing, one of these clubs has a player nominated for player of the month. The other has lost five straight games at home.

Scott Parker deserves a great deal of respect for getting Fulham firing but what have Fulham done to turn their fortunes around?

The Gaffer

Scott Parker is an outside shout for manager of the year and a shoe-in for best dressed. He’s much closer to Pep Guardiola’s tactical nous than the Spaniard is to his fashion sense. He has bought a sense of stye to the banks of the Thames both on and off the pitch transforming the cottagers into a slick outfit.

If Fulham’s football is beginning to mirror the gaffers swagger, their early season form resembled one of Tony Pulis’ baseball caps. They were all over the place. They conceded ten goals in their first three games with little to shout about going forward. An emphasis was put on recruiting a whole new team and the team that were the removal of Mario Lemina’s arms away from a well-deserved point against Spurs, contained only one member of the starting XI from the opening day of the season – Harrison Reed.

Fulham’s last competitive game of the 2019/20 season was on the 4th August restricting new-season-planning to just five weeks. New payers had to adapt to new systems; to new teammates; and new surroundings. Parker deserves credit for adapting to the opposition rather than rigidly sticking to a formation that doesn’t work.

The System

Fulham have mixed and matched all season long as they have gradually found their feet in the division. Against Aston Villa in a resounding 3-0 defeat, Parker employed a back-five with Denis Odoi tasked with marshalling Jack Grealish. He may as well have been asked to anchor a freight train for all the good it did. He committed five fouls, was dribbled past three times, and lost possession 18 times but it was that sort of on-the-job training that Parker has had to employ.

Take the home game against Everton, for example. Everton dragged Ola Aina into the middle of the park and scored all three goals from the space he left on the right flank. The very next game, Bobby Decordova-Reid was employed as a wing-back. Fulham stifled a strong Leicester side and walked away with three well-deserved points.

Ola Aina (left) made his clearances centrally in the 3-2 defeat to Everton. In the 2-0 victory, Tete was able to occupy the flanks more and Everton couldn’t get the ball into the box as affectively.

By the time the return game against Everton came around, it was back to a back-four for Fulham. They had, however, learnt to adapt in other areas. Fulham fouled Everton’s midfield three eight times in that game and the forward three twice. Rather than try and stop Everton’s attack when it was in motion, they did it before it had even begun and it allowed them to play their football. Richarlison was limited to only 15 touches down 48 in the previous game. Further proof is the position Lucas Digne took up in both games. He had two assists in the first game with three successful crosses. In Fulham’s victory, he was forced backwards and none of his nine crosses found a target because of this.

Lucas Digne had more passes in the defeat but Fulham dictated where they were.

Playing Without The Ball

Fulham set illustrious possession-based records in the Championship. In one game against Millwall, they ammased 935 passes and controlled 84% of the possession and this was a theme throughout their promotion campaign. Even in a 3-0 defeat to Leeds, they had 58% of the ball as they looked to take the game to their opponents. This season, Parker has learnt that ball retention doesn’t equal points and his Fulham side are quite happy to allow others to have the ball.

Take the 2-1 victory over Leicester City. Jamie Vardy is probably one of the best strikers in the world for making runs in behind the defence. In the victory, Fulham didn’t allow him that opportunity. They sat back and allowed Leicester to pile on the pressure and Vardy was left isolated. He touched the ball only 15 times – 5.9 times fewer than his average. Fulham also had three counter attacks in the game. Two of these led to goals, and they created a further two more big chances. A look at the xG maps of the two sides in this game shows us how Fulham were capable of creating the better-value chances whilst devaluing Leicester’s. They outscored the Foxes in this area, 2.24-1.18, despite having six shots fewer.

The xG maps of Leicester (left) and Fulham from Fulham’s 2-1 victory.

Can They Stay Up?

In a word, check-back-in-a-month… Fulham have got a tricky run of games coming up where they play Tottenham, Liverpool, and Manchester City in succession. They have Newcastle at home on the last day of the season and will fancy themselves to get the three-points they need should that be the gap but their recent good form could be undone if they don’t get a surprise result before then. However, with Newcastle having the bottom six still to play, they will feel they have their destiny in their own hands.

It certainly helps when you have individuals capable of game-changing moments. Zambo-Anguissa sits third in the league for completed dribbles per game with 2.9; Tosin and Anderson are three and five respectfully for clearances; and Areola sits seventh for saves per game with 3.3. All of these stats mean that Fulham don’t have to be flashy and control games. They can defend well as a team and allow individuals to save them when this doesn’t work. It’s not a criticism, far from it. It is something that the likes of Burnley do on a regular basis and that Brighton and Newcastle haven’t done enough. Brighton in particular, with an xG of 43.4 (seventh best in the league), could do with individual performance to see them over the line.

Fulham feel key decisions have gone against them. When winning at St. James’ Park, Joachim Andersen was sent off and a penalty awarded – a decision that was later rescinded; an equaliser against Spurs was chalked off because Mario Lemina was guilty of having arms; and VAR could easily have awarded a penalty against Liverpool. But crying over spilt milk won’t stop them having to travel to Accrington Stanley. The famously-mocked Lancastrians are on a push for promotion and Fulham fans may need a bit more luck to avoid asking ‘who are they?’ next season.

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