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Fulham slowly turning the tide - Interview
Friday, 8th Jan 2021 10:18 by Clive Whittingham

Our resident Fulham fan Konk, and Farrell Monk from the Fulhamish podcast, assess the White’s difficult return to the Premier League, improving defence and form, and where this weekend’s cup tie figures on the priority list.

A tough first half of the season, as you expected or are you disappointed?

Konk: We had a very strange promotion – underwhelming for most of the season, with pretty dull football much of the time, so it was something of a surprise to actually get promoted. We then left our transfer business to the last minute again(!), meaning we started the season with Odoi, Hector, Ream and Bryan in defence; not terrible in the Championship, but asking for a lot of trouble in the PL. We started as badly as many of us had feared, and it looked like we were due to have another humiliating season, but belatedly signing some players in positions where they were needed, has happily led to big improvements in performances, and the signs are promising. We’re higher in the league than I expected, but I’m a bit disappointed not to have more points, given the side’s progress. Missed/saved penalties against Sheff Utd (1-1), WHU (0-1) and Everton (2-3), haven’t helped.

FM: It would be easy to look at our notably soft start of the season and be disappointed. No wins in the first six, defending like amateurs. Since then it has been largely positive, and the outlook is far from gloomy. Still in the relegation places with a brittle squad are causes for concern. Overall, where we are and how we are playing currently is roughly as expected. No one could have predicted how radio rental the Premier League has been so far and Fulham have not been immune to the madness. Stunning Leicester and the Champions, Callum Wilson’s dive, the plethora of missed penalties, including that diabolical dink Lookman.

A run of draws of late, has anything changed to tighten you up?

Konk: Signing some Premier-league quality defenders. Areola is a good keeper, and the back four look like they’ve been playing together for a lot longer than a couple of months, with no pre-season. Andersen and Adarabioyo have been generally very solid in the middle, Robinson has given us some much needed pace on the left of defence, and Aina has improved at RB, where we still have Kenny Tete to come back. Lemina is also looking pretty good in front of them, so we’re not conceding the clown show goals that we were earlier in the season. Having a pacy and direct outlet in Lookman and Anguissa carrying the ball forward, also relieves pressure at the back.

FM: Predominately the new defenders and the structure. Once Adarabioyo and Anderson had a couple of games to bed in, they look the part. Both strong and positive in the tackle, composed on the ball and no mistakes in their armoury. Areola is showing all the quality and experience that you would expect from a Goalkeeper of his experience. Parker values a strong defensive work rate so these additions and combined with tactical tweaks, such as the genius move to play Decordova-Reid as a hybrid wing-back/winger in certain situations has provided some much-needed security. Not forgetting Ola Aina, initially a shaky at an unfamiliar right full-back role is now looking assured whilst the impressive Kenny Tete works his way back to full fitness. It hurts me to say it as this may be a slight against Tim Ream, Michael Hector and Marek Rodak who have all been sensational for Fulham and integral to our promotion.

Fulham league results so far…
Fulham 0-3 Arsenal Lacazette 8, Gabriel 49, Aubameyang 59
Leeds 4-3 Fulham Costa 5, 57, Klich pen 41, Bamford 50 – Mitrovic pen 34, 67, Reid 62
Fulham 0-3 Villa Grealish 4, Hourihane 15, Mings 48
Wolves 1-0 Fulham Neto 56
Sheff Utd 1-1 Fulham Sharp pen 85 – Lookman 77
Fulham 1-2 Palace Cairney 89 – Riedewald 8, Zaha 63
Fulham 2-0 West Brom Reid 36, Aina 30
West Ham 1-0 Fulham Soucek 90
Fulham 2-3 Everton Reid 15, Loftus Cheek 70 – Calvert Lewin 1, 29, Doucoure 35
Leicester 1-2 Fulham Barnes 86 – Lookman 30, Cavaleiro pen 38
Man City 2-0 Fulham Sterling 5, De Bruyne pen 26
Fulham 1-1 Liverpool Reid 25 – Salah pen 79
Fulham 0-0 Brighton
Newcastle 1-1 Fulham Wilson pen 64 – Ritchie og 42
Fulham 0-0 Southampton

Scott Parker, still the man for the job?

Konk: I’ve been on a weird ‘journey’ with Parker. In the Championship, we had an expensive squad, and put out pedestrian sides that looked to be less than the sum of their parts. But we played some great attacking football against Cardiff in the first leg of the play-offs, and then Parker got everything spot on against Brentford at Wembley – including instructing Bryan to have a pop from the free-kick, spotting that Raya liked to position himself miles off his line. For the first time, it occurred that maybe he knew what he was doing and might be able to change things around when needed.

In retrospect, given the dismal season we’d had the year before, and the mess he’d inherited, Parker deserves a lot of credit for that promotion, even if it wasn’t much fun. Since then, he’s been hampered by our DOF signing players at the last minute, but since they’ve arrived, we’ve seen a big improvement in terms of performance; we no longer look out of our depth. On the negative side, he’s persisting with Ruben Loftus-Cheek over Cairney, when Cairney looks to offer more, and even if Mitrovic is struggling for form, I’d still start him over Cavaleiro every week if he's fit. Parker’s not perfect, but he does seem to be learning as he goes, so even if we go down, if we carry on in this vein, I'd have him start the following season.

FM: No question the person for Fulham. I have been banging the Parker drum for quite some time against some heavy internal pressure. The tide of support for the gaffer is turning, he clearly has a track record for turning this failing team around and installing a winning mentality. He has formed an adaptable squad to be able to play different styles of play keeping opposing managers guessing. Maintaining a level of performance to get results at this level is remarkable for a manager of his experience. He loves Fulham, returning as a coach, twice, alongside four seasons as a player and now manager. You do not do that for a club you loathe. His post-match interviews are legendary and have sparked a resurgence for The Streets too. You get a glimpse of how he has got the players on his side. The world is starting to see why he is winning over the fans too.

Expected January activity? Another big spend to try and stay up?

Konk: We are badly lacking up front. Mitrovic hasn’t been himself since football started-up again after the first lockdown; he just seems really out of sorts. Without him, we completely lack either a focal point or someone capable of playing the CF role against PL defences. I think most Fulham fans will be disappointed if we don’t see an ambitious signing in attack during the window. Realistically, I think a £15-20m signing is probably needed. Outgoings: I would expect Seri to go – he’s not even in our squad – and a number of fringe players like McDonald and Johansen to leave or go out on loan.

FM: Considering the pandemic and the global economy on a knife-edge, I cannot see the owner splashing the cash. That said, the owners will do everything in their power to keep Fulham in the Premier League, for business reasons. The famed director of football and the owner’s son Tony Khan is learning the role gradually, thankfully seeing a more sensible approach typified by the window just past. I expect one or two astute new signings to balance the squad, but do not rule out a one hefty signing occurring if the opportunity arises.

Summer Ins >>> Anthony Knockaert, 28, RW, Brighton, £10.5m >>> Harrison Reed, 25, DM, Southampton, £5.85m >>> Terence Kongolo, 26, CB, Huddersfield, £3.96m >>> Kenny Tate, 24, RB, Lyon, £2.8m >>> Antonee Robinson, 23, LB, Wigan, £1.89m >>> Tosin Adarabioyo, CB, 23, Man City, £1.49m >>> Ola Aina, 23, RB, Torino, Loan >>> Mario Lemina, 26, DM, Southampton, Loan >>> Ademola Lookman, 22, LW, RB Leipzig, Loan >>> Joachim Andersen, 24, CB, Lyon, Loan >>> Ruben Loftus-Cheek, 24, CM, Chelsea, Loan >>> Alphonse Areola, 27, GK, Paris SG, Loan

Summer Outs >>> Jordan Archer, 27, GK, Motherwell, Free >>> Luca de la Torre, 22, RM, Heracles, Free >>> Magnus Norman, 23, GK, Carlisle, Free >>> Anthony KNockaert, 28, RW, Forest, Loan >>> Cyrus Christie, 27, RB, Forest, Loan >>> Marcus Bettinelli, 28, GK, Boro, Loan >>> Steven Sessegnon, 20, RB, Bristol City, Loan >>> Alfie Mawson, 26, CB, Bristol City, Loan >>> Matt O’Riley, 19, CM, Released

Where is the team strong and weak?

Konk: I’m not sure about ‘strong’, but we now look defensively decent/organised, and the midfield’s passable at Premier League level. As above, we are weak in attack: one recognised centre forward and we’ve only scored 13 goals in 15 league games.

FM: Most fans will agree that up-front is where we need to strengthen. This may come as a shock to people outside the club, considering our squad boasts countries top scorer from last season. It is becoming clear Mitrović, brilliant as he is, the style of play is not befitting of the fast and athletic system that Parker is mostly favouring. This is reflected in the number of minutes he has had recently. That development leaves us very light in that department. Cavaleiro has been gallantly attempting to fill that void, but he has been extremely ineffective much to the detriment to our attacking output. Aboubakar Kamara is equally unproductive at this level. Leaving Decordova-Reid whose productivity in defence and attack from wide positions is integral to the system and the only person who can do that job.

Where Fulham are strongest in the centre of the park. The Whites have Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Harrison Reed and Mario Lemina at their disposal. Anguissa is up there as one of the best number eights in the league and has the stats to back that up in terms of defensive and attacking metrics. Both Reed and Lemina do impressive work in breaking up play, the latter being a great ball carrier too. All three together are of real solid Premier League quality and we would hate to see that messed with.

Will you survive?

Konk: No Idea. Sheff United look doomed, and then I expect it’s between us, WBA and Brighton, with maybe Burnley or Newcastle joining the rest of us battling relegation. I’m gonna go bold and say we’ll stay-up. Probably. Possibly. Maybe.

FM: Concentrating on our own performances in comparison to the teams around us you must think Fulham have a very good chance of survival. Looking at our rivals, West Brom do not have enough quality on and off the pitch and Sheffield United cannot do anything right. Burnley are picking up points, albeit on the back of sub-par efforts but Dyche will probably keep them up that way, doing just enough. Brighton and Newcastle who are both sliding towards the drop zone who have both been a bit damp recently, this is new territory for Potter and Bruce has a chequered history. Back on Fulham, do we have enough quality? Absolutely. Can we keep them fit and playing well in an increasingly tight fixture list? Stayed tuned sports fans, it could be wild.

Where do you think this game figures in the priority list?

Konk: Very low down. We generally don’t take the cups seriously enough, and with us battling relegation, having a number of Covid cases, a number of players who could do with match time, and playing against lower division opposition, it’s probably not high on the club’s list of priorities. Given we’re never going to win the League, I would love us to go for both cups, but there you go.

FM: Firstly, the priority now is the safety of the players, the staff, and their families. News out of training ground is understandably thin. Fingers crossed for them above everything. Parker has just mentioned that they’ve “Had a bit of a rough time of late. That's been well-documented with positive tests.” But is getting the numbers back which is good news. We should be all be looking forward to tasty FA Cup tie. Even in the position that Fulham are in now. You can taste the rivalry in the air at the game. I have come away elated from victories at Loftus Road and sampled despair is defeat, albeit rarely. That boom or bust is what we savour as football fans. However, it is not the feeling I have now. Not being able to go is a crying shame for fans on both sides. And with that goes a lot of importance of the match. Taking all things into consideration it becomes more of a competitive fixture to get players back fit, especially since Fulham haven’t played a game since Boxing Day. I might be saying very different come the first blast of the whistle on Saturday though.

Links >>> Fulham official website >>> West London Sport Fulham – Local Press >>> Fulham Focus - Fan Blog >>> Friends of Fulham – Message Board >>> Fulham Web – Blog and Forum >>> Fulhamish – Podcast

The Twitter @loftforwords, @FulhamishPod, @farrellmonk

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