Fulham have earned a lot of plaudits for their performances in recent weeks. Two matches in particular stand out when The Cottagers played well against higher-placed opposition but only came away with one point out of a possible six from the two games. The games I refer to are the 1-0 defeat against Manchester United and the 1-1 draw with Chelsea. With more belief in their own ability and bravery to take the game to their opponents, Fulham could well have come away with anything up to six points from these two games.
In both matches, Fulham played with their 4-2-3-1 formation. Although the three attack-minded midfielders were so deep it practically made it a 4-5-1 set-up that began both games. At Old Trafford against United, there is still a certain fear that exists amongst visiting teams that prevents them from really believing they can get a result at the biggest club ground in England. I wouldn’t say Fulham had too much of this fear as such, more a lack of belief in their own ability to take the game to United without allowing the champions to take control of the game. Fulham played some nice football in the first half and were unlucky to go in at half time a goal down after Wayne Rooney struck three minutes before the interval. Dembele and Dempsey in particular had caused the United midfield problems with their movement and Pogrebnyak ensured it wasn’t an easy night for Ferdinand and Evans despite not having many chances himself. In the second half, United began to dominate possession but without really threatening to add to their one goal advantage. But Fulham still didn’t throw caution to the wind against a United side clearly not at the races.
It wasn’t until Martin Jol sent on captain Danny Murphy with just under 20 minutes to go that Fulham began to play higher up the pitch and get more bodies forward in support of the previously isolated Pogrebnyak. In the dying minutes, United were hanging on against a side that suddenly had the belief that they could get something out of the game. And a Michael Carrick tackle on Danny Murphy as the former Liverpool midfielder surged into the penalty area failed to make contact with the ball and was wrongly ignored by referee Michael Oliver. That was a huge let-off for United. The closing stages must have left Fulham fans thinking if they had gone for it a little earlier in the game, that United were there for the taking and their side could have managed to rescue at least a point.
The visit of Chelsea
For Chelsea’s visit to Craven Cottage, Fulham were missing Pavel Pogrebnyak. Clint Dempsey played the lone striker role just a few days after becoming the club’s highest scorer in a single Premier League season. Fulham again started the game very cautiously, having good spells of possession but not really testing Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal or getting their attacking midfielders high enough up the pitch to do any real damage to their West London neighbours. As at Old Trafford just a few weeks previously, Fulham found themselves on the wrong end of a questionable penalty decision. Despite replays suggesting he might have been wrong to do so, referee Mark Clattenburg awarded Chelsea a penalty which Frank Lampard tucked away just before half-time.
As the second half progressed Fulham still seemed reluctant to come out of their shell and let their talented attacking players – Dembele, Frei and Duff – push further upfield and have a little freedom to roam and find space. Again, Fulham showed themselves to be very comfortable on the ball and not afraid to keep possession when put under pressure. In the final 15 minutes, however, the home side seemed to consciously begin to attack Chelsea. Perhaps finally sensing that this is not a great Chelsea side and that they possess enough ability in their own ranks to go toe-to-toe against anyone when they are on form, especially at Craven Cottage. Riise began bombing forward from left full-back, as he had become famous for earlier in his career at Liverpool, and Damien Duff played ten yards further forward and pinned Ryan Bertrand back for the first time in the match. The crowd could sense an equaliser was on the cards and after a run of corners were Chelsea were uncharacteristically poor at dealing with, Dempsey managed to head home for his 16th goal of the season. By this time Martin Jol had sent on Orlando Sa to add a physical presence to Fulham’s attack – further evidence of Fulham’s growing belief during the game. Fulham were still the better side in the closing stages and were looking more likely to find a winning goal. As Chelsea brought Drogba on and moved Torres to the right hand side, Ivanovic was left exposed several times, no longer receiving the support that Ramires had offered him for the first 83 minutes. This was an avenue Fulham exploited as they pushed for a winner but they eventually had to settle for a point as it finished 1-1.
What might have been
This is not intended as a criticism of Fulham or their manager Martin Jol. The Dutchman is building a good team that plays football the right way and is still in transition from the Mark Hughes team he inherited. The change in the forward line of Zamora and Johnson in front of a midfield four has been changed for the continental-style 4-2-3-1. A change which isn’t always successful straight away. Fulham now appear to be getting to grips with it and are showing they can match the ‘bigger’ clubs in the league on their day. But if Fulham had been a little braver in believing in the talent in their team, they could have come away from Old Trafford with at least a point and could easily have beaten Chelsea. Maybe next season, as Jol’s players become more and more comfortable with their formation, the manager himself will believe in his team a little more and be brave enough to take the game to the opponents in games like these.