Defense wins matches.
If you had any doubt about that, yesterday’s match versus Newcastle should convince you. Think back to last season, where Middlesbrough won automatic promotion even though they scored fewer goals than Fulham.
The hype around this match - not to mention the biased media coverage for promotion-favored Newcastle - was immense. In the eyes of many, Newcastle was Goliath to Fulham’s David. How ironic is it that the biblical giant was taken down with a single blow to the head, and Newcastle were felled by a header from Fulham’s very own giant, Matt Smith?
For the most part, Fulham’s starting XI were no surprise, especially with the late announcement of minor injuries to Marcus Bettinelli and Ryan Sessesgnon. The one potential exception could be those that were expecting Woodrow to start over Smith. All in all, there were seven fresh faces in Fulham’s new white home kit to kick off the first match of the Championship season.
The match started slower than many expected, with Newcastle passing around quite a bit in their half, and Fulham content to let them. The Magpies tried lumping it up to their forwards several times, but without any consequence. It was noted early on that nearly every offensive run by Newcastle was made on their right side, targeting recent signing Scott Malone, who for the most part handled himself well under pressure.
In fact, in the 4th minute, Malone almost got even for the constant pressure by making a spirited run down the line, all the way to the Newcastle penalty box. He passed it off and the ball was eventually crossed in, but Matt Smith was called for a foul as his header went wide. Regardless, it was a fine play by Malone.
Through the first nine minutes of play, neither team seemed eager to over-commit, taking their time and playing a tentative match, not wanting to get caught out on a break. But in the 10th minute, a foul by Denis Odoi on Perez just on the edge of the box earned the Fulham defender a yellow card, and the Geordies a golden opportunity – an opportunity that was left wanting as their free kick was blasted directly into the Whites’ wall.
There followed a nice spell of possession by Fulham for several minutes, with some crisp passing and ball movement, culminating in Malone winning a corner. Tom Cairney’s corner was cleared, not troubling Sels, the Newcastle keeper.
Through the first twenty minutes of play, it was clear that this was not our defense of last season – thankfully. As stated before, Malone was doing well, although his passes were less than perfect. Odoi had a bit of a rough patch in the beginning, but was calm and cool on the right side after his nerves settled down. Kalas and Madl looked like they had played together for years, with Kalas cool and unruffled, and Madl playing the part of a silent stalker, nicking balls from unsuspecting opponents.
In the 25th minute, the first of the referee’s several questionable non-calls took place when Aluko was brought down by Newcastle’s Hanley, either in or just outside the box. Fulham’s protests were waved away, and play continued.
By the time the half-hour mark had come, it was clear that the Fulham midfield and defense were not about to let Newcastle run through or over them. The Whites had the pace, determination, and organization to counter the opposition’s runs each time. The Magpies were forced to simply lump the ball up to their strikers four or five times, where each time the play died or was broken up.
Then in the 34th minute came the second questionable non-call, when Tunnicliffe appeared to handle the ball in the box. Slow motion replay showed the midfielder’s arm up and away from his side as the ball struck it, but thankfully the referee only awarded Newcastle a corner kick.
In the 40th minute a nice run by the Whites culminated in a blistering shot by Aluko, a shot that bounced a few feet from the keeper. Smith was there to try and pick up a trash goal, but was unable to notch his first of the season.
Then at 44 minutes, everything changed – and our season got significantly brighter. Fulham won a corner, which was taken by Cairney. Matt Smith rushed in, and almost unmarked, blasted in a header past the gloves of Sels, and into the back of the net. The Toon Army gathered behind the net could only stand in shock with their arms crossed and mouths open as the Fulham faithful erupted in joy. Minutes later the half was over.
There were no player changes to either side at the beginning of the second half, although Fulham’s formation shifted to a more defensive 4-5-1. The White’s fullbacks weren’t pushing as far up the field in the second half, hanging back and playing a little more cautiously, protecting their narrow lead.
Newcastle was pressing Malone’s side again and again, but for the most part he dealt with the pressure well. New signings Aluko, Ayite, and Odoi all demonstrated the pace we’ve longed for. Kevin McDonald was rock-solid and unruffled in midfield, where he completed tight passes with relative ease. Tunnicliffe was all over the pitch, as we’ve come to expect.
Around the 54th minute, Button was finally called on in a big way. During a short spell of frantic play in our box, Newcastle’s Ritchie sent a rocket towards goal, but Button’s reflexive kick-save kept the score 1 – 0. For the next few minutes, Fulham looked scattered and disorganized as they worked to clear their lines. Finally, Odoi cleared the ball from the back, and got fouled – again. The Whites took that opportunity to break up the field, where Cairney crossed it to Smith at the far post, who headed it back to Aluko. Newcastle broke up the play, and we were left wondering if Smith should have simply tried to head it over the keeper for his second goal.
From the 66th minute on, it was clear that the team was prepared to sit back and defend their thin lead. This was reinforced when Slavisa brought on Scott Parker and Lasse Vigen Christensen, pushing Aluko up top as a lone striker.
Three minutes later, Malone made another bold run, and, after a great interchange with Aluko, took a shot that flew a yard wide of the far post. At this point the Newcastle faithful that had traveled south had to wonder what was happening.
Somewhere around the 80th minute there was some confusion in our defensive third, which allowed Armstrong to try his luck from ten or fifteen yards out. Fortunately his strike went wide, not troubling Button.
Then, at the 82nd minute, Odoi successfully pulled off a move that certainly still has Dummett wondering what happened. On a long cross to the right side, Odoi deftly turned, the ball bounced off his back, and he spun off a bewildered Dummett, and sprinted toward the Newcastle goal. It was so smooth and slick it had to be practiced and intentional, and it was such a stunning move that even the travelling Toon Army was forced to be impressed. It was a move destined to be watched by many, shown in highlights, and certainly never forgotten.
Shortly after that Tim Ream came on for Malone. As always, Ream was very steady on the ball. The threesome of Madl, Kalas, and Ream have to be the most measured, unruffled players Fulham have had on the back line in years.
Near the end of regulation time, Christensen blasted a shot well over the crossbar that may not have come down yet.
Newcastle by this time were frustrated and angry, and picked up several fouls in quick succession, including a yellow for slamming the ball down. They could sense that the match was quickly slipping away.
With less than a minute to go in stoppage time, Newcastle was awarded a free kick from five yards outside the box. There’s every chance that last year’s defense would have crumpled at this point and let in a goal to tie it up, but Slavisa’s updated and upgraded squad held firm. In fact, there were few times that set plays of any kind gave them any trouble, which is so heartening after what took place over and over last season.
With only seconds to go, the commentator on television commented that Odoi was running in the 94th minute like it was the 4th minute. That sums up the new and improved Fulham squad – they are playing with ambition and heart, and they showed it. When the whistle blew after four and a half minutes of injury time, nearly every Fulham fan knew that, perhaps this season, things were going to be different.
And by “different”, I mean “better”.