On Friday, Fulham proved everyone wrong as they secured a 1-0 victory over Championship favourites, Newcastle United.
Every bookmaker and pundit had predicted Fulham to roll over and take a beating from Newcastle on the opening game of the season, but what happened was a different story.
Teams:Button; Odoi, Kalas, Madl, Malone (Ream 85'); McDonald, Tunnicliffe (Parker 69'); Cairney, Sone Aluko, Floyd Ayité; Matt Smith (Christensen 69')
Sels; Janmaat, Lascelles, Hanley, Dummett; Anita, Hayden (Shelvey 77'), Colback (Aarons 61'), Ritchie; Ayoze Pérez (Armstrong 70'); Gayle
Despite several players still unwell or injured from Pre-Season, Slavisa Jokanovic still masterminded his way to three points.
Scott Malone would eventually get the starting place at left-back, after pre-season starter Ryan Sessegnon was ruled out of the fixture with a slight injury. Despite the former Cardiff defender having a shaky pre-season, his Craven Cottage debut would have eased any fears in the Fulham faithful about his ability. Although, Malone’s final ball was lacking some quality, I was impressed by the amount of distance the full-back covered before being substituted in the second half. With both full-backs being allowed to push forward, defensive pairing Kalas and Madl were allowed to split, allowing the side to push as a unit and creating more options in possession.
While the pundits and sky commentators would report this game as a bad evening for Newcastle, credit needs to be shown to Fulham. The defensive pairing of Michael Madl and Tomas Kalas were superb all evening. After 3 years of having to watch some very questionable partnerships at the back, I have never felt so confident of keeping a lead as I was on Friday night - watching these two constantly beat Ayoze Perez and Dwight Gayle to each ball. Every time a low cross was drilled into the box, Kalas and Madl got in front of their man and safely cleared the danger. Despite playing against two very pacey forwards, Madl’s and Kalas’ positioning allowed them to cover each other, preventing any threat they possessed.
There was a home debut for goalkeeper, David Button too after Marcus Bettinelli was ruled out of the squad with an injury. Although, the former Brentford goalkeeper was rarely tested, he was very impressive when called upon. His communication with the central defenders was very noticeable, with the goalkeeper acting as a sweeper on occasion and commanding his area very well. Button’s insistence on collecting crosses was a breath of fresh air too. Although our previous goalkeepers have been decent shot-stoppers in recent years, their ability to command their area had been questioned and with Button impressing on his debut, I have full confidence in him to keep his place for the next few league fixtures at least.
Before the game, I stated that winning the midfield battle would be key to winning the three points against Newcastle and that is exactly what Fulham achieved. Time after time, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Sone Aluko pressured the pairing of Jack Colback & Isaac Hayden, limiting their options in the centre of the park. With the side pressing as a unit, Kevin McDonald was able to dictate the tempo of the game, spraying the ball effortlessly across the pitch to spread the play and continually build another attack. McDonald will prove to be a key figure at the club and will form part of the foundation to build upon. With McDonald, Cairney and Aluko in the side, Fulham’s midfield and creativity in the final third will be a huge benefactor to achieving something special this season.
At the start of the game, I was surprised to see Matt Smith lead the line, as I thought Cauley Woodrow looked our best option in pre-season. I will happily admit that I was wrong and Jokanovic was right, as big Matt Smith scored the opening goal with a trademark header. Despite, not having many chances in the game, Smith’s presence and size caused a constant problem for the defensive pairing of Grant Hanley and Jamaal Lascelles. With Smith occupying the two centre backs, space continued to be created for the supporting act of Cairney, Ayite & Aluko and these three talents were at the heart of every attacking move. When Smith was eventually substituted, it was interesting to see Floyd Ayite moved into a central role alongside Sone Aluko. Despite, Jokanovic implementing the same switch against Crystal Palace, I was expecting Woodrow to be introduced to the game. Then again, I guess I’m used to ‘like for like’ substitutions after experiencing the managerial reign of Kit Symons.
Even though Fulham have lost the goal threat of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele this summer, Fulham are finally building a team which no longer relies on one player for that moment of magic. Watching Fulham on Friday night was a true pleasure, and it finally felt that the fans were getting a side they could be proud of once again. Every single player worked their socks off until the final whistle and the team organisation was reminiscent of the Roy Hodgson reign with everyone knowing their role once the game settled. Obviously, the game will always be remembered for that ‘back flick’ by Denis Odoi, but this could also be the birth of the Jokanovic reign and if the club can match the ambition of our Serbian Head Coach, there’s no limits to what could be achieved.
Fulham do have the opportunity to rotate the squad tonight as they face Leyton Orient in the EFL Cup. With this in mind, Fulham could give a competitive debut to 16 year old Ryan Sessegnon who was the star of pre-season, and it would be nice to see a full 90 minutes given to the likes of Sessegnon and Stephen Humphrys. Hopefully, giving these talents debuts in the cup will give them the confidence to develop and improve their game even more without the pressure that comes with a league game. It will be interesting to see who is picked for tonight’s fixture, but one player that won’t be there is Sakari Mattila - who officially left the club yesterday.
As for the next league game, I hope Fulham name an unchanged eleven at the weekend at Preston as it would be great to see the side gain momentum and some consistency to try and build a strong start to the season. Should the opportunity to play the same eleven present itself, it will be a great chance to allow the new partnerships and playing relationships to blossom further.
Finally, it seems that any potential deal for Steve Mounie has fallen through with the player keen to stay in France and Montpeiller valuing him in the region of €7.5-€9m, despite only playing one full season in Ligue 2 with Nimes last season. There are rumours that the Jozabed deal is nearing completion, with the player attending the opening game of the season. It is clear that Fulham will be taking their business until deadline day, with the club keen to sign up to six new players before the window closes. While it is always better to have your squad sorted before the opening day of the season, it is good to see the club pushing for a number of players to improve the quality of the squad. As mentioned before, if Fulham can match Slavisa’s ambition, then Fulham’s dream of returning to the top tier of English football could be achieved in the next 2 - 3 years.
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My next column for the match day programme will be published for the Birmingham City fixture.
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